Read Doomed queens Online

Authors: Kris Waldherr

Doomed queens








CHAPTER ONE: BIBLICAL TIMES AND BEYONDAthaliah,Artemisia I,Olympias,Roxane,Thessalonike,Amastris,Berenice III,Empress Xu Pingjun,Berenice IV,Anula,Arsinoe IV,Cleopatra,Empress Wang

CHAPTER TWO: DANCING IN THE DARK AGESBoudicca,Zenobia,Empress Dowager Hu,Amalasuntha,Galswintha,Brunhilde,Irene of Byzantium

CHAPTER THREE: MIDDLE AGE CRISISUrraca of Castile,Sibyl of Jerusalem,Gertrude of Meran,Oghul Ghaimish,Theodora of Trebizond,Blanche of Bourbon,Joan I of Naples,Maria of Hungary

CHAPTER FOUR: RENAISSANCE REVELSCatherine of Aragon,Anne Boleyn,Jane Seymour,Catherine Howard,Jane Grey,Juana of Castile,Jeanne III of Navarre,Mary Stuart,Mumtaz Mahal

CHAPTER FIVE: GO BAROQUEMargarita Theresa of Spain,Maria Luisa of Orléans,Sophia Alekseyevna,Mangammal,Caroline Matilda,Marie Antoinette

CHAPTER SIX: SEMIMODERN TIMES AND MOREJoséphine de Beauharnais,Caroline of Brunswick,Alute,Elisabeth of Bavaria,Alexandra Romanov,Eva Perón,Diana Spencer





For Theresa Park, a queen among women—with affection and appreciation

A Queen of the past is not an Ex-Queen.



Women have been called queens for a long time, but the kingdom given them isn’t worth ruling.



[The executioner] shall not have much trouble, for I have a little neck. I shall be known asla reine sans tête.


elcome to your favorite dream—and worst nightmare. You are cosseted in silk, crowned with gold, and bowed to. Courtiers laugh at your jokes and compliment your beauty, even when you know you’re having a bad hair day. All envy you, but things change. Just years later, even those who admired you steer clear of your path. Your influence is on the wane for any number of reasons. The fault could be yours—maybe you weren’t as clever as you thought in the scheming department. Or it could be that others are scheming against you.

When the end finally comes, it arrives with the stroke of an ax at noon—a topsy-turvy Cinderella tale—or with a drumrolled march to the scaffold. The battlefield may provide you with a convenient grave. Or you might lose your crown as you labor to bring forth an heir to the kingdom. Biology becomes destiny. Best case scenario: You will survive a coup and be allowed to live out your days in awkward exile, where opportunistic stragglers will still suck up to your royal majesty, just in case.

No matter how your end finally arrives, one truth remains: Your fall from grace is not your call, though your actions may encourage it. It is your fate. After all, you are a doomed queen—and, if one is to go by the lessons of history, the only good queen is a dead one.


For too many royal women throughout history, the scenario I’ve sketched here was their dark reality. The members of the doomed queens club—a club I suspect few would care to join—are legion, stretching from biblical times to the present day. Their names range from the infamous—Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette—to those whose deaths are hidden within footnotes, such as Blanche of Bourbon and Thessalonike.

WithinDoomed QueensI’ve presented fifty of these lives from around the globe and throughout the ages. While each queen’s final destiny may differ, one fact remains consistent: Despite the perks of royalty, it’s usually not good to be the queen.

What was it about being royal that made so many women so vulnerable to losing their lives for power? Let me count the ways—here is an admittedly abbreviated overview of the doomed queen:

BED, BIBLICAL TIMES, AND BEYOND: It has always been obvious that the female of the species holds the keys to the kingdom—the kingdom of life, that is. Without the fruit of the womb, humanity would crash and burn. Boo-hoo, what’s a power-loving man to do? To solve this problem, mating and relating is safely confined within the institution of matrimony and becomes sanctified with religious rites. The power of female fertility is harnessed, thus creating dynastic succession. Royal women who get uppity with the system get offed. Watch out, Olympias and Cleopatra!

YO, LET’S GET CIVILIZED: Power isn’t enough—there’s money, too. The Dark Ages roll in, disquieting queens everywhere. Men try their darnedest to hold on to property beyond the grave, despite that whole can’t-take-it-with-you dilemma. Salic law, which sprang from the Frankish empire, becomes institutionalized. An excerpt:The whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.But if women can’t inherit property, can they inherit thrones? Over time, Salic law leads to lots of territorial fighting when a male heir isn’t available.

MARRIAGE MAKES THE WORLD GO ’ROUND: No male heir? No problem! To avoid war, the powers that be send their daughters to sleep with their enemies and bear their children, keeping it all in the family. But are these queens royal consorts or royal hostages? The Austrian Hapsburg dynasty, whose rise to power peaks during the Renaissance, is especially adept at this clever little maneuver. Their family motto? “Leave others to make war, while you, lucky Austria, marry.” Like chess queens, women are moved about the game board but are sacrificed first to protect the king—especially if their wombs prove infertile or if they become too power hungry.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE: With the start of the Age of Enlightenment, blue bloods shake in their boots. Power has shifted to the people, as embodied by the press, who no longer respects the sanctity of royalty.Vive la révolution—or not, if your name happens to be Marie Antoinette. Later in history, the media can make or break a reign, as in the cases of Caroline of Brunswick, a nineteenth-century queen of England, and Diana Spencer, a twentieth-century queen of hearts.


Why Ladies Only

The sad reality is that the threat level leaps from ecru to red when the head wearing the crown is missing a Y chromosome. Why are male rulers less doomed?

While kings were also vulnerable to political upheaval—just ask Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s headless husband—for the most part men pulled the strings at court. Therefore any woman blocking the way to power was a threat to be eliminated. Common ways to bump off an inconvenient consort included beheading, burning, drowning, poison, stabbing, strangling, starving, and forcing suicide.

The justifications for their deaths were usually based on underlying issues such as religious differences, infertility, or dynastic struggles. And when there wasn’t an easy way to dump a queen, the men got creative. For example, in order to gain the right to slice off Anne Boleyn’s comely head, Henry VIII accused her of treason with a side of adultery.

Women were also more vulnerable to the travails of the flesh. While they usually didn’t go to war, potential royal brood mares were often sent on treacherous journeys to wed. After marriage, childbirth was a dangerous rite of passage many did not survive.

And now we have reached the twenty-first century. Are there still doomed queens among us? Certainly! Though we have moved on from the guillotine (which was last used by the French government in 1977), the doomed queen still lives and dies. These days, she might not be as easily recognizable as she once was. She may not have royal blood either. Tiaras are de rigueur for red carpets, but today’s doomed queen is more likely to be attired in business best or haute couture. She could be part of a political dynasty, wield the wealth of a global corporation, or bear overwhelming celebrity.

Recognize her now? Just in case, here are two more examples ripped from news headlines. At the time of this writing, Benazir Bhutto, the first woman ruler of an Islamic nation, was assassinated after returning to Pakistan to reclaim the power she once wielded. Meanwhile, rumors fly that Pakistan’s current president or his supporters could be responsible for her death. In the United States, former first lady Hillary Clinton has lost the democratic nomination for the presidency. Did first mate Bill muscle her into oblivion on the campaign trail? Whatever your opinion of Clinton or Bhutto, there’s one point we can all agree on: Their femaleness was—and is—considered a liability in their quest for power.

Like it or not, it’s still a man’s world. As such, the doomed queen reflects our uneasiness with women of power, even in these advanced times. The not-so-subliminal message at hand is that women who strive upward do so at their own risk.

In closing, I leave you with a story that originated in Vienna, land of the marriage-happy Hapsburgs. In olden times, a masked ball was held to which all of society was invited. During the ball, a queen danced with a handsome gentleman, whose identity was concealed by a red mask. As the night wore on, she fell madly in love with him, not realizing that he was the executioner on a break—royalty and death waltzing together in an intimatedanse macabre. So it has been since the first crown was donned.


Before we commence ourdanse macabrethrough queenly history, here are a few notes to help you enjoy the ride.

The queens’ stories are arranged chronologically according to date of demise or dethronement; when the exact year is uncertain, I’ve used the last date they were noted within history’s annals. During my research, when confronted with contradictory information, I’ve striven to present that which appeared most historically persuasive. However, when all things were equal, I allowed the scales to tip toward the more colorful version.

The art and graphics presented withinDoomed Queensare adapted from numerous sources. The full-page portraits are my original drawings, some of which were inspired by famous paintings. Many of the other decorative elements were adapted from Victorian-era ornaments or portraits of historical personages.

While some of these doomed queens’ lives are certainly tragic, others are so over the top that they invite disbelief or humor. Whether you find yourself laughing or crying, I hope you will consider their examples cautionary tales for modern women who yearn to avoid the sharp edge of the sword. Humor aside, what’s revealed here is serious stuff: the shadow side of feminine power in all its unsavory glory.

May you read and beware.

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assassinated or cause of death unknown


burned to death

death by pacaptionzzi


died in childbirth



died of illness



sent to religious orders


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starved to death

committed suicide


Biblical Times and Beyond


Mine honor was not yielded, but conquered merely.

Cleopatra, via William Shakespeare

It is in the ancient world that our survey of unfortunate queens begins. This era is anchored by two figures, Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. Though the two rulers shared little beyond a common ancestor and some serious ambition, both served to inspire the destruction of those close to them. Just call them the Typhoid Marys of blue bloods.

Alexander was a descendant of the powerful Argead dynasty that ruled the vast Macedonian empire in the fourth century BCE. He used his considerable military genius to expand his holdings to encompass just about all of the ancient world, spreading the best of Greek culture (better known as Hellenism) in the process. Alexander’s premature demise in 323 BCE led to numerous power struggles and fatalities. His death also led to the founding of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, from which Cleopatra sprang like Athena from Zeus’s head.

The saga of Cleopatra and her kin is, in many ways, a tale of sibling rivalry gone wild. Cleopatra lived three centuries after Alexander and was the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Though she was a skilled ruler, she was no warrior like her ancestor—instead, she seduced influential men into fighting her battles for her. Her two regent sisters, Berenice and Arsinoe, also coveted the Egyptian throne but weren’t as persuasive in the charm department. Nor did they have Cleo’s canny intelligence.

What exactly was it about Egypt that encouraged women rulers to set their caps so high? The historian Herodotus proposed that things were just different there: “The people, in most of their manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practice of mankind. For example women attend the markets and trade, while men sit at home at the loom…. Women urinate standing up, men sitting down….”

And how did these queens of biblical times end their reigns? Matricide occurred too often for comfort—offspring hungry for power did not allow sweet memories of the womb to discourage their desires. Also popular: poison, drowning, and state-sanctioned suicides. Fun times.


835 BCE

mong royals of the biblical age, Queen Athaliah had quite the pedigree. She was the daughter of Israel’s King Ahab and Queen Jezebel—yes,thatJezebel, the temptress immortalized in blues songs and an old Bette Davis movie. The Book of Kings claims that Athaliah’s infamous mother met a nasty end at the hands of palace eunuchs. As for Athaliah, her life and death illustrate the adage of the apple not falling far from the tree.

Royal marriages in biblical times were no different from royal marriages later in history—dynastic aspirations have ever trumped personal inclination. Jezebel, a princess of Phoenicia, was pragmatically wed to King Ahab to ally their lands against enemies. Like mother, like daughter: When Athaliah came of age, her parents trundled the princess of Israel off to King Jehoram of Judah to say “I do.” Ideally speaking, their union should have created one big happy conglomerate of Judah-Israel where everyone lived in harmony. But there was one problem: Athaliah followed her mother’s worship of Baal, a Mesopotamian fertility god; Jehoram was a descendant of King David. Today, these differences would make prime ingredients for a screwball comedy where everyone learns religious tolerance and how to make a mean matzo ball. In ancient times, they usually spelled bloodshed.

When Athaliah married Jehoram, Jehoram agreed to take on Athaliah’s religion. The new queen of Judah gave birth to a son named Ahaziah, who also followed his mother’s lead in worship.

Though they all may have gotten along in private, in public Jehoram’s rule was unstable—his subjects weren’t too happy with the king’s religion by marriage. Nor did they limit themselves to complaints. Jehoram was fatally shot with an arrow after defending his mother-in-law from accusations of witchcraft and fornication. Ahaziah succeeded his father as king but died a year later in battle.


Executions were performed during ancient times for a wide range of infractions beyond murder or treason. The Code of Hammurabi, the first set of written laws, which dates from 1760 BCE Mesopotamia, lists numerous death-worthy offenses, such as bearing false witness or hiding runaway slaves. Methods to dispatch the condemned to the next world included, in no particular order: starvation, hanging, poison, decapitation, strangulation, crucifixion, and stoning. Slaves were deemed unworthy of any official ceremony and simply beaten to death.

But what about royal women like Athaliah? The Bible states that “they slew Athaliah with the sword” one assumes this means a beheading rather than a picturesque fencing match. However, this fate was not shared by all condemned queens. Jezebel, Athaliah’s mother, was killed by defenestration—a fancy way of saying she was shoved out a window. Her body was left where it landed and devoured by dogs.

Now it was Athaliah’s chance to rule, for bad and worse. Grabbing the opportunity presented by her son’s death, she immediately ordered the executions of all possible successors to the throne of Judah—in other words, every member of her family by marriage. However, Queen Athaliah wasn’t as thorough in her machinations as she thought. Her sister-in-law Jehosheba escaped the communal bloodbath, taking the queen’s baby grandson, Joash, with her. She hid him and his nurse in a bedroom, a simple but evidently effective plan.

While Athaliah ruled without impediment, Jehosheba secretly raised little Joash away from the queen’s attention. Six years later in 835 BCE, Joash went public and was anointed king by the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, Athaliah was furious at the royal coup. She tore at her clothes and screamed, “Treason! Treason!” But the queen’s accusations were no match against King Joash’s army. They captured Athaliah and promptly executed her.

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When completing a job,don’t overlook the small details.

Artemisia I

480 BCE

rtemisia became the sole regent of Halicarnassus, a city on the coast of Caria (part of modern-day Turkey), after the death of her husband in the fifth century BCE. Her husband was evidently not as intriguing as she was—his name has been lost by time. However, their union did bring forth a son, Pisindelis, who joined Artemisia in battle as an adult.

As queen, Artemisia was denounced as a tyrant because she brown-nosed King Xerxes I of Persia despite the wishes of her people. In her defense, Halicarnassus was a client city of Persia, so it was good politics to keep the big kids on the block happy.

Toward that end, Artemisia promised aid when Xerxes went to war with Greece. She also advised the king: “Do not fight at sea, for the Greeks are infinitely superior to us in naval matters.” He ignored her warning and lost the water-based Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Artemisia participated in the battle and commanded five large ships. But when the fight turned against her, the queen attacked and sank an ally ship, thus convincing the Greeks she had defected to their side. After she escaped to safety, the Greeks were peeved at her deception and offered ten thousand drachmas for her capture.

Was Artemisia a prudent warrior seeking to limit casualties on her side? Or was she a coward trying to save her derriere? It depends on how you look at it. One rumor claimed that the queen conveniently carried two different flags into battle; she raised the Persian flag on her ship while chasing Greeks but substituted the Greek flag when they sailed too close for comfort.

Yet the historian Herodotus thought highly of Artemisia. He wrote in hisHistories: “I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder…. [Her] brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure.” He concluded by praising the advice she offered Xerxes. Nor does Xerxes appear to have held a grudge against her. Or maybe he did not identify her as the naval force who sunk his battleship—after all, dead sailors can’t squeal. In any event, the king requested her counsel again. This time he listened and won victory.

Protected by Persia, Halicarnassus prospered under Artemisia’s rule. However, one story claims that Xerxes could not protect the queen from her emotions. Later in life, Artemisia fell hard for a boy toy named Dardanus. Alas, her affections were not reciprocated. After gouging out Dardanus’s eyes while he slept, Artemisia ended her reign by jumping into the sea.


Throughout the ages, drowning was more often deployed to torture witches than to rid a nation of an unloved monarch. However, as a suicide method, drowning wields a romantic spell, all the way from heartbroken Artemisia’s final plunge to Virginia Woolf’s stroll with rock-filled pockets into the River Ouse. This attraction can be partly traced to a belief that drowning was a painless way to die; once the struggle for life ceased, the victim was thought to exit the world surrounded by serene visions and heavenly choirs.

No doubt this belief has roots in physical reality: When a person drowns to death, her brain becomes deprived of oxygen. And brains deprived of oxygen typically hallucinate, whether there’s religion involved or not.


Don’t let your heartoverrule your head.


316 BCE

ithout Olympias, Alexander the Great could never have existed—and without Alexander, the civilizing force of Hellenism would not have flapped its great wings over Western culture. Olympias was queen to Philip II of Macedon; their only issue was a son who grew up to be known as Alexander the Great. For this, one must grant Olympias thanks. History would be far less interesting without him.

The birth of Alexander the Great was one of Olympias’s few contributions to society. Beyond this, she was known for her affection for snakes and violence. The queen was never one to avoid dispatching a rival, real or imagined, to the great beyond. She approached murder with a ghoulish creativity that appalled even her devoted son, who loved her beyond all others except for one other person—but that’s Roxane’s story, still to come.

When Olympias met Philip, Philip was yet another Greek warrior king accustomed to marrying his enemies’ daughters to ensure peace; a joke from that time claimed that he took on a new wife after each battle campaign. Olympias was wife number four. On top of this, Philip also enjoyed the company of men as more than friends.

After three docile war brides, Olympias was a walk on the wild side. An orphaned princess hailing from Epirus, Olympias’s first loyalty was to the god Dionysus and his ecstatic mysteries, which involved dancing, snake handling, and much alcohol consumption. Plutarch writes that she “was wont in the dances proper to these ceremonies to have great tame serpents about her, which…made a spectacle which men could not look upon without terror.” Amazingly enough, the Macedonian king fell in love with Olympias while participating in these rituals.

Their marriage was filled with portents from the start. The night before the wedding, Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body and kindled a great fire that spread over the land before it was extinguished. Soon after, Philip dreamed that he sealed her genitals with a wax seal imprinted with a lion’s image. A wise man assured the king that this vision meant that the queen was pregnant with a boy as courageous as a lion.

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When Empire BuildingIs a Bad Thing

Olympias was the daughter of Neoptolemus, the king of the Molossians; the Molossians were a tribe in Epirus, a region located in what is now northwest Greece. Though Philip had other wives, none could compare to—or survive after—Olympias.

Alexander did not name an heir to his empire. When asked on his deathbed, he cryptically replied, “To the strongest.” Chaos ensued. Alexander’s wife Roxane gave birth to a son after his death, whom she named after his father. In the meantime, the throne was kept warm for Alex Junior by Alex Senior’s older half brother Philip, who was mentally impaired; many believed Olympias had poisoned him for fun and profit. The empire became mired in civil war, aided and abetted by Olympias’s scheming.

After much strife, an eventual victor emerged in the form of Cassander, the son of Alexander’s most trusted deputy Antipater. He married Alexander’s half sister, Thessalonike, thus continuing Alexander’s bloodline.

Divine omens or no, it was clear from the start that Alexander was meant for great things. To place him on the fast track for world domination, Olympias went far beyond what even the most devoted Texas cheerleader mom would consider. Philip grew uncomfortable with her zeal and cut off marital relations after he found her sleeping next to a serpent. He decided that the queen was either an enchantress or making whoopie with the god Zeus, who often took on animal forms to seduce mortal women.

In either case, Philip felt threatened. To protect himself, the king chose to dump Olympias as queen, disinherit Alexander, and take yet another wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, who was of pure Macedonian blood. The results were incendiary. Olympias insinuated that Alexander was indeed the son of Zeus and the divine superior of Philip. Soon Philip was stabbed to death by a jealous male lover. Not surprisingly, Olympias’s fingerprints were all over the plot. One rumor claimed that she plied the murderer with words to inflame his anger. She even placed a gold crown upon the executed murderer’s corpse—hardly the act of a mourning widow. To ensure Alexander’s reign would be unimpeded, Olympias assassinated Cleopatra Eurydice and her two small children by Philip. In a scenario out of a Grimms’ fairy tale, the children were roasted to death, their mother forced to hang herself.

From here, there was no stopping Alexander—or Olympias. After he took off to conquer the world, she never saw him again. Nonetheless, she wrote him frequently. He bore her advice patiently, though he rarely took it. In turn she, too, did as she wished. When Antipater, his governor in Macedon, wrote Alexander to complain about Olympias’s meddling, Alexander remarked, “Antipater does not realize that one tear of a mother erases ten thousand letters like this.”

As predicted, Alexander was as brave as a lion—but even lions are vulnerable. After conquering much of the world, Alexander died in 323 BCE from a suspiciously sudden illness. He was only thirty-three.

Without Alexander’s protection, Olympias knew her days were numbered. She returned to Epirus to plot her return to power but met her match in Antipater’s son Cassander, who inherited Alexander’s throne. He arranged for the queen’s execution in 316 BCE. As a final insult, he denied her the rites of burial.


Religion can take you only so far.


309 BCE

ne has to feel compassion for Roxane, queen to Alexander the Great. Though her beauty made her the toast of the ancient world, she simply couldn’t compete with Alexander’s number one love. Surprisingly, this all-encompassing passion wasn’t his mother, Olympias (though the king certainly loved her best of all women). Nor was it world domination (though he slept with a copy of Homer’sIliadby his side). Nope, it was a man, Hephaestion. And when Hephaestion died, Roxane’s life went to hell in a handbasket.

Hephaestion was Alexander’s favorite childhood friend. When they came of age, evidence suggests that their friendship became a friendship with benefits. Olympias did everything she could to discourage their intense attachment. She even sent her son a famed courtesan, to ease him into heterosexuality. But Alexander refused to do the deed with her—the courtesan could not compare to his beloved Hephaestion.

Had Alexander not conquered Persia, Roxane would probably have been married off to some minor warlord, hopefully to live and die in peaceful obscurity. Instead, she became enmeshed in a dynastic struggle that brought the lives of herself and her son to premature ends.

Coin of the realm featuring the emperor himself.

Roxane was the daughter of Oxyartes, king of Bactria, a region in what is now Afghanistan. Her name translates as “Little Star,” presumably in reference to her luminous beauty. The royalty of Bactria used the fortress of Sogdian Rock as a refuge when threatened; Sogdian Rock was surrounded by a sheer cliff no one could surmount—until Alexander. In 327 BCE Alexander sent three hundred of his best climbers to scale the cliff in the middle of the night. Come morning, they greeted Oxyartes and company with pancakes and mimosas. The Bactrian king was so unnerved by Alexander’s success that he surrendered without a fight. He also surrendered Roxane’s hand to Alexander. Hephaestion served as best man.

Though Plutarch claimed that it was love at first sight, this seems unlikely: Alexander had eyes only for Hephaestion. Marrying Roxane was a savvy political move to solidify alliances. To his credit, Alexander wed Roxane using the ceremonies of her people, which won him much respect—he didn’t just invade, he assimilated. It was for similar reasons that three years later Alexander married Stateira, the daughter of the Persian king Darius III, after he conquered that land. Their union was part of a mass Moonie-style wedding that Alexander insisted his soldiers partake in—the ultimate consolidation of power.

Roxane’s life with Alexander was one long military slog. Legend claims that she traveled with him to India, which was feared as an exotic realm no one could conquer. Alexander could not resist the challenge but emerged unvictorious. However, even the toughest campaign was a cinch compared to the queen’s life after Hephaestion’s unexpected death in 324 BCE. Alexander was never the same. He died several months later, also of a sudden illness—some believe he and Hephaestion were poisoned—but not before knocking up Roxane a mere six years after their wedding.

Fate might have been kinder had Roxane given birth to a girl—but she didn’t. It is surprising that Roxane and Alexander Junior survived as long as they did, given the chaos after Alexander Senior’s demise. To save their skins, Roxane behaved accordingly. She arranged for the murder of Alexander’s other wife, Stateira. She also gained the protection of Olympias from Cassander, the warrior most likely to succeed in Alexander’s empire. But this was not enough to save their lives, especially after Olympias was sent to her eternal reward.

Roxane and her twelve-year-old son were poisoned by Cassander in 309 BCE, thus marking the end of Alexander’s bloodline.


Don’t marry a man in love with another man.

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295 BCE

fter the demise of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, most of his surviving relatives lost their lives as they scrambled after the crumbs of his empire. One notable exception was Alexander’s half sister Thessalonike.

How did Thessalonike escape being served death on a platter when so many others could not? Perhaps it was because she hardly knew Alexander—Thessalonike was only a small child when her big brother took off to conquer the world. It could also be because she was the daughter of Philip II’s mistress Nicesipolis. Nicesipolis died soon after Thessalonike’s birth in 342 BCE, leaving the girl to be raised by Olympias. As incredible as it sounds, Alexander’s mother felt affection for Thessalonike and taught her the ways of Dionysus. At the very least, Olympias did not judge the girl an impediment to her worldly ambitions.

However, though Thessalonike made it past the first round of eliminations, she did not survive the second.

Upon Alexander’s death, Thessalonike took refuge with her stepmother, Olympias, against Cassander, who grabbed Alexander’s throne. Several years later, Cassander finally had the cojones to dispatch Olympias, but he granted a different fate to Thessalonike: He married her. Their union in 315 BCE gave the new king’s reign a legitimacy it previously lacked.

After going through so much, you would think that Thessalonike had it made. From an illegitimate birth, she had climbed the ladder of royal success to become queen of it all. Presumably the couple got along well enough, since three sons—Philip, Antipater, and Alexander—soon arrived. Cassander even named a city after Thessalonike, granting her great honor. But these ties of blood and bed were unable to prevent the queen from participating in a Macedonian version ofKing Lear.

When it comes to ruling a kingdom, three sons are two too many. After Cassander succumbed to dropsy in 297 BCE, Thessalonike used the teachings of her wily stepmother to manipulate Philip, Antipater, and Alexander to her advantage. But the queen was no Olympias—death soon visited them all.

Philip, the eldest son, wasted away from a mysterious illness not long after taking charge. Two years later, middle son, Antipater, became jealous of Thessalonike’s attentions to Alexander and murdered his mother in 295 BCE. Not one to be left out of a family squabble, Alexander bumped off Antipater but was then assassinated himself by a pretender to the throne.

Though Thessalonike’s mortal remains are long gone, she is remembered within the annals of Greek folklore. One legend claims that upon her death, the queen was transformed into a mermaid who lives still in the Aegean Sea.


When it comes to succession,one heir is plenty.


Stories about mermaids date from about 1000 BCE, some 700 years before Thessalonike. Even then, mermaids were associated with disappointing relationships. The first known mermaid legend tells of the ancient Assyrian goddess Atargatis, who drowned herself after a disastrous love affair. Though she hoped to be transformed into a fish, her divine nature would not cooperate—she retained her human form above the waist.


284 BCE

he deaths of Thessalonike and her family brought the annihilation of the descendants of Alexander the Great to a close. However, aftershocks from his legacy rocked the ancient world for some years. One victim they eventually claimed was Amastris, the queen of Heraclea Pontica, a Greek colony on the coast of what is now Turkey.

Amastris was the daughter of Oxyathres, the brother of the Persian king Darius III. Remember that mass wedding staged by Alexander to commemorate grabbing Persia from King Darius? Amastris was one of the reluctant war brides; she was married to Craterus, Alexander’s favorite bachelor general. As it turned out, Craterus was just the start of the princess’s complicated matrimonial career. She would have two more opportunities to register for royal china before breathing her last.


Modern dictionaries define a tyrant as a ruler who wields power through cruel or oppressive means. However, in ancient Greece a tyrant was someone who had seized the right to rule. While their reigns weren’t sanctioned by law or birthright, they usually won popular support from local businesses and workers—think corporate takeover rather than military coup. The truth was that the tyrant Dionysius was loved by his subjects—they even gave him the nickname of “the Good.”

One year later in 323 BCE, Amastris’s Alexander-inspired nuptials were history. When the big guy bit the dust, Craterus abandoned the princess to return to the sweetheart he’d left behind in Macedon. Before he departed, he gave his blessing to Amastris’s next groom, Dionysius, the tyrant ruler of Heraclea Pontica.

Rumor held that Dionysius was so overjoyed by the death of Alexander that he abandoned himself to endless luxury and gluttony. With Alexander gone, life at the tyrant’s court was a nonstop banquet, much of which was funded by Amastris, who had brought a considerable dowry. But too much of a good thing is too much: Dionysius grew morbidly obese. Nonetheless, his heft did not prevent him from gifting his consort with three children—Clearchus, Oxyathres, and a daughter named after herself—over a short period of time. Dionysius died by choking on his own fat in 306 BCE, leaving his queen to rule in trust for their sons.

Amastris resigned herself to single life. But like Penelope without Odysseus, it wasn’t long before suitors clamored for the empty place on her throne and in her bed. This time, the lucky winner was Lysimachus, the latest king of Macedon. Though he loved Amastris’s bountiful assets, he also loved the queen for herself. Nevertheless, Lysimachus went out for a pack of cigarettes permanently when the more politically advantageous queen of Egypt offered him her hand in marriage.

Now alone, Amastris hung up her veil for good—she chose to govern Heraclea Pontica on her own. According to the historian Memnon, the queen ruled prudently and built up the colony’s strength and size. In time, she expanded her territories to found the city of Amastris. When her children entered adulthood, Amastris prepared to hand over her well-tended crown and enjoy the quiet comforts of middle age. But this was not to be.

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Amastris’s sons grew up to be ruthless despots, unlike their much-admired parents. The princes arranged for Amastris to be drowned when onboard a ship, perhaps to short-circuit the populace’s growing dissatisfaction with their rule. The murder was quickly avenged by Lysimachus, the queen’s final husband, who decided that his affection for Amastris remained as strong as his desire to regain her lands.


Avoid boats rowed by your enemies.

Berenice III

80 BCE

erenice III was the first queen of Egypt to rule without a consort in over a millennium. Though her reign was brief, her example inspired her descendant Cleopatra to also rule alone. Improbably, neither queen possessed Egyptian blood. Berenice did not even speak Egyptian; she considered Greek her lingua franca.

How did a non-Egyptian woman ascend to the Egyptian throne? Berenice’s rise to power can be traced back some two centuries earlier to Alexander the Great. When Alexander’s body proved weaker than his will, his vast empire eventually suffered the fate of all empires without a strong ruler: It was cut up slice by slice by those hungry for a piece of the pie. Berenice III’s ancestor Ptolemy was a distant relative of Alexander and one of his most gifted generals. Like everyone else, Ptolemy wanted in—but he was wiser than the others. Instead of overreaching for the world, he limited himself to Egypt.

Geographic isolation plus agricultural wealth equals one happy ruler. Egypt was surrounded by sea and mountains, making it unappealing for spur-of-the-moment invasions; its wealth was derived from the Nile, whose annual flooding ensured abundant harvests that the ancient world depended upon for survival. To cap his coup, Ptolemy managed to steal Alexander’s corpse, which he interred in a magnificent tomb in the heart of Alexandria, Egypt’s capital city. By owning the literal embodiment of Alexander, Ptolemy’s reign gained an aura of legitimacy that allowed his descendants to rule Egypt for three centuries. The only power to get in their way was the Roman Empire, which they mollified with regular tributes of money.

Though Ptolemy originally hailed from Macedon, his family quickly assumed the customs of their adopted land, though not its language. Chief among them was the use of intermarriage to consolidate power. Egyptian mythology encouraged the wedding of brother to sister, niece to uncle; Ptolemy saw no reason to break with tradition. The Ptolemaic dynasty also recycled names ad nauseam, which makes it confusing to ascertain exactly who ruled when and how.

Ptolemy monotonously followed after Ptolemy for generations. Then along came Berenice, the third of her name.

Queen Berenice III was the daughter of Ptolemy IX. Her father married her off to his younger brother who, not surprisingly, was named Ptolemy X. It was uncertain whether the marriage was consummated, but it mattered not—Berenice was widowed before an heir could be born.

After her father died in 62 BCE, Berenice decided to rule without a consort at her side—one dead husband was enough. But the powers that be in Rome weren’t too happy about this. To assuage them, Berenice deigned to marry her father’s stepson, Ptolemy XI. Having gained Egypt by possessing the queen, Ptolemy had no further use for Berenice. He waited a scant three weeks before arranging for her murder.

This Ptolemy’s reign was short. Though Berenice’s reign had lasted only half a year, she won the hearts of her populace during this period. They proved their loyalty by lynching Ptolemy several days later.


When Inbreeding

Leads to Discord


Though Ptolemy had not a drop of Egyptian blood in him, his dynasty ruled over the Nile for many years. Berenice III was one of his direct descendants.


If you share your power,you may soon lose it.

Empress Xu Pingjun

71 BCE

bout nine years after Queen Berenice’s death in Egypt, halfway around the world another royal woman met an unnatural end. The Chinese empress Xu Pingjun lost her life to fulfill a family’s quest for power. Unlike the immediately avenged Berenice, it took half a decade for Xu’s assassin to be brought to justice.

This most unfortunate empress reigned during the illustrious Han dynasty; the Han dynasty’s many achievements include porcelain, the first dictionary, and the proliferation of Confucianism. Xu was the devoted wife of Emperor Xuan, who had been raised as a commoner but elevated to the throne at the age of eighteen in a veritable Cinderella story. Xuan’s fairy godmother was Huo Guang, a mover-and-shaker statesman with enough influence to depose the previous emperor when he proved ineffective.

Initially Xu was acknowledged only as the emperor’s imperial consort. Huo advised Xuan to take a second wife for his empress, suggesting his daughter for the role—her appointment would complete Huo’s passive-aggressive coup. However, the emperor truly loved his wife, who had wed him when he was poor and humble. He refused to let politics trump emotion.

Xu was crowned in 74 BCE. As empress, she never forgot her roots and, like her husband, was noted for her modest ways. Everyone could have lived happily ever after were it not for Huo Guang’s wife, Lady Xian. Xian did not take the emperor’s rejection of her daughter lightly. Plus she was even more ambitious than her kingmaker husband—think Lady Macbeth, Han dynasty style.

Xian watched for an opportunity to impose her will. It took her three years, but her plot was exceptionally devious. When Xu was in labor with her second child, Xian bribed the empress’s female physician to add wolfsbane to her medication; wolfsbane, also known as aconite, causes asphyxiation. The timing of the murder suggested that Xu perished from postnatal complications rather than cruel intentions.

Nonetheless, after Xu’s death the physician was arrested for questioning. Terrified the not so good doctor would point the finger at her, Xian lost her cool and convinced her husband to drop the case. With that crisis averted, Xian was free to concentrate on the big picture again. Soon after, the emperor made her daughter empress—she just happened to be available to comfort the grieving widower.

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It would appear that the evildoers were rewarded by good fortune, but murder will out. Five years later, Emperor Xuan discovered the truth behind Xu’s passing and executed most of Huo’s family.


As Madame Bovary discovered in the novel of the same name, dying from poison ain’t an easy way to go. After snacking on arsenic-laden rat poison, Flaubert’s favorite adultress envisioned sinking into a peaceful unending sleep. Instead, “drops of sweat oozed from her bluish face…. Her teeth chattered, her dilated eyes looked vaguely about her…. She was seized with convulsions and cried out, ‘Ah, my God! It is horrible!’” Madame Bovary’s death arrived too many agonizing hours later, announced by a stream of tarlike vomit from her mouth.

Because it lacks odor and flavor, arsenic is the most popular poison for the murderously minded. Arsenic affects its victim with irreversible liver and circulatory failure—a different route to the grave than Empress Xu’s experience with aconite, which depresses the cardiovascular system until the victim suffocates from a lack of oxygen. Some snake venoms act similarly but by paralyzing the nervous system; other venoms destroy red blood cells, leading to internal hemorrhage. Asps were used for executions in ancient Egypt and Greece—a more public form of poisoning than the wolfsbane hidden in poor Xu’s medicine.


Choose your own doctorsand pay them well.

Aconite, aka wolfsbane. Pretty but deadly.

Berenice IV

55 BCE

ack in Egypt, another Berenice soon came along. The reign of Berenice IV as queen of Egypt was almost as truncated as that of her murdered ancestress, Berenice III. Though the later queen Berenice managed to hold on to the crown about a year longer than the earlier, neither reign was anything to write home about.

By the time Berenice IV came to power in 57 BCE, it was the twilight of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Three hundred years of inbreeding had led to internal power struggles and a weakened bloodline. Berenice was the eldest of five children born to Ptolemy XII, the Egyptian pharaoh better known as Auletes, “the flute player” this belittling nickname referred to either his chubby cheeks or his habit of waxing musical when in his cups. Ptolemy’s subjects considered him weak of mind and will, especially after he imposed high taxes to meet the demands of the increasingly greedy Roman Empire.

Ptolemy was hanging on to his throne by a thread when Rome decided to annex Cyprus, an island under Egyptian rule. The Egyptians blamed Ptolemy for the loss and riots ensued. The king fled to Rome, hoping to convince them to return Cyprus and reinforce his monarchy.

With the king away, Rome asked twenty-year-old Berenice to mind the store. Berenice went one better and declared herself queen—she was glad to be rid of her father. The people of Egypt concurred and threw their full support behind her rule. Berenice’s four younger siblings Cleopatra (yes,thatCleopatra), Ptolemy Junior, Arsinoe, and Ptolemy Redux sucked it up to save their lives. There was little else they could do.

Berenice IV’s rule was distinguished by chaos and murder. Initially, she may have had a coruler confusingly named Cleopatra—it’s unclear whether this Cleopatra was her stepmother or an older sister. If so, she was immediately dispatched to the next world. Next up was Berenice’s cousin, Seleucus. The uneasy queen wed him to grant her rule stability, since people weren’t too thrilled to see a woman alone on the throne. The honeymoon did not last long. Seleucus was murdered within a week’s time.

Berenice immediately tried marriage again, this time to Archelaus of Cappadocia. While all these couplings were going on, the queen’s daddy was still scheming to regain Egypt. By now, Ptolemy had moved on from Rome to Ephesus, where he enlisted the support of the Syrians.

In 55 BCE, Ptolemy came triumphantly marching home. Paternal love did not keep him from immediately executing Berenice and her followers. One story claims that Ptolemy had Berenice’s head brought to him upon a platter while Cleopatra watched. It is presumed he did not serve it for dinner.


When minding the store, don’t get caughtwith your hand in the candy jar.


Berenice’s death made little sister Cleopatra next in line to the Egyptian throne. To keep it in the family, Ptolemy Senior insisted Cleopatra tie the knot with her brother Ptolemy Junior. Ptolemy Senior reigned for another four years before he passed away at the ripe age of sixty-six. Improbably, he died of illness rather than alcoholism or at the hands of the Romans and his scheming children.

The flute player was also father of Cleopatra, who gained the throne after Berenice.


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42 BCE

exual cannibalism is theLiebestodof the insect kingdom. Two prime examples of it are the praying mantis and the black widow spider; in both species, the females dispatch their partners to the next world after making sweet love to them. Among humans, sexual cannibalism is essentially nonexistent—no doubt taboos against murder help deter postcoital violence. However, these petty social codes did not stop Queen Anula of the south Indian kingdom of Sri Lanka from sleeping and killing her way to the top.

The reign of Anula reads like a Joe Esterhas screenplay. It is recorded in theMahavamsa, a chronicle of Sri Lankan history written by Buddhist monks. Just like a Sharon Stone femme fatale, the queen’s rise to power involved seduction and dead bodies. By the end of Anula’s reign, her modus operandi had become boringly predictable. Her weapon of choice: poison. Her preferred victims: working-class men—and the more, the better.

Little is known of Anula before she married King Coranaga, who became king in a government coup in 62 BCE. The new queen lay low for twelve years until her lust for Siva, a palace guard, spurred her to action. After so many years of marriage, Coranaga trusted his wife enough to imbibe whatever she offered. He was soon pushing up daisies.

Upon the king’s demise, the crown passed to another male member of royalty; Anula was dethroned and married Siva. One presumes she missed the pleasures of sex seasoned with power—this time, she waited only three years before poisoning the monarch. She replaced him with Siva, thus restoring herself to the throne.

From here, there was no stopping Queen Anula. King Siva reigned for just over a year before Anula capriciously set her cap for a carpenter. The carpenter kept the throne warm for the woodcutter who followed; both men were quickly dispatched by the queen via her favorite method. Anula also proved to be a gifted multitasker. In the midst of all this marrying and burying, she enjoyed the sexual favors of thirty-two palace guards.

After poisoning her last consort, Queen Anula decided to reign solo. This was the final straw for her populace—apparently it was okay to murder but not to rule without a male consort. Within four months, Anula was forcibly deposed. She was trapped within the palace where she had committed her murders, which was then set on fire.


In Malory’sLe Morte d’Arthur, Queen Guenever was found guilty of treason and condemned to be burned to death. She was stripped of her royal robes and tied to a large stake before a jeering crowd. Lucky for her, the queen was rescued by her loyal knight Launcelot just in time.

Burning at the stake was death at its most excruciatingly painful. In Europe, it was reserved for so-called witches, homosexuals, and heretics—royal blood was beside the point—and reached its zenith in medieval times. It was also a public ritual, where scores of people gathered to watch and often to protest the proceedings. A mass was performed beforehand, usually by an up-and-coming clergyman eager for notice.

If they were lucky, the condemned would expire from smoke inhalation before the flames reached them. To ensure a rapid demise, family and friends paid the executioner to allow them to add wood to the fire. Sometimes packets of gunpowder were hung around the victims’ necks, instantly killing them when ignited.

The death of Anula was far less ceremonial. Her palace fire was fueled by an angry populace seeking to get rid of a murderous ruler.


As you climb to success over the dead,don’t alienate the living.

Arsinoe IV

41 BCE

rsinoe IV was the younger sister of Cleopatra, the glamorous Egyptian queen known for her alliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Besides Cleopatra, Arsinoe had three siblings: two younger brothers, both named Ptolemy, and another older sister, Berenice, whom their father Ptolemy XII executed in 55 BCE after she got too cozy with his throne.

Arsinoe was cleverer than Berenice. She waited until after their father’s death to make her move for the crown of Egypt. However, she was unable to outsmart Cleopatra, who eventually arranged for her baby sister’s death. As evidenced throughout their rule, the members of the Ptolemaic dynasty did not draw the line at killing kin.

When he died in 51 BCE, Ptolemy XII deeded Egypt to Cleopatra and her brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. Unsatisfied, Ptolemy XIII decided to co-opt Egypt for himself, and Arsinoe gladly came along for the ride. Julius Caesar, Rome’s head honcho, soon became involved in the family fray, since it was in Rome’s interest to keep Egypt economically stable. One story claims that Arsinoe was suggested to Caesar as a consort; instead, the Roman warrior succumbed to the numerous charms of Cleopatra.

Sated by sex, Caesar restored Cleopatra as Egypt’s sole monarch. Arsinoe was granted the booby prize of Cyprus, so she wouldn’t go home empty-handed. But Arsinoe was not pleased—she plotted revolt against Cleopatra and Caesar. Those unhappy with Cleopatra found the queen of Cyprus a convenient rallying point.

By 48 BCE, Arsinoe had whipped up enough military support to grab the throne from her big sister. She trapped Caesar and Cleopatra in the imperial palace, but not for long—Caesar’s troops arrived in early 47 BCE to free the dynamic duo. They also captured Arsinoe. She was stripped of her crowns and transported to Rome, where she was paraded in chains through the streets as a prisoner of war.

Usually prisoners of war were put to death, but Caesar had pity upon Arsinoe, perhaps because she was Cleopatra’s sister. He allowed her to run away to Ephesus, where she quickly settled down in the Temple of Artemis. Amazingly enough, Arsinoe had not learned her lesson and began scheming anew. She even encouraged the temple’s high priest to address her as queen.

Cleopatra’s revenge came five years later. Now aligned with Mark Antony, Cleopatra convinced her lover to arrange for Arsinoe’s execution. Arsinoe met her death in 41 BCE within the Temple of Artemis, where she had first claimed sanctuary.

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Blood is seldom thicker than blood.


Arsinoe’s story has been overlooked in the face of her more successful older sister, Cleopatra—too often history is written by the victors. But in death, Arsinoe was buried with the queenly honors that had been denied her in life. Her remains were interred in a tomb in the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Archaeologists have never been able to locate her tomb.

Engraving of Cleopatra with Mark Antony. Baby sister Arsinoe just couldn’t compete.


30 BCE

leopatra ruled as queen of Egypt for more than two decades—an astonishing feat for a woman born into a dysfunctional, inbred family headed by an alcoholic pharaoh. During her reign, Cleopatra became famed for her charm and unusual intelligence; the historian Dio Cassius wrote that “she captured all who listened to her.” Though Greek by blood, she identified wholeheartedly with her country’s heritage; of her family, she was the only member to learn Egyptian.

Cleopatra was seventeen when her father, Ptolemy XII, passed on to the next world. He chose her to corule Egypt with her ten-year-old husband-brother, Ptolemy XIII. Despite her father’s wishes, the queen was soon ousted into the desert by Ptolemy Junior’s supporters—so much for spousal loyalty. But years of familial scheming taught Cleopatra how to survive. She used her time in exile to amass a large army. However, Ptolemy refused to tango with her forces. There was little Cleopatra could do. As the months passed, it became harder and harder to keep her army fed and frisky.

Fortunately, Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria just as it seemed all was lost. Cleopatra knew that the middle-aged warrior would take her side. She also knew that if she went strolling back into town to meet with him, her body would arrive at the embalmers before noon. She took advantage of her diminutive size and smuggled herself to Caesar within the rolls of a rug.

Caesar was wooed by her cleverness and beauty. He immediately confirmed their alliance in the bedroom; most likely the queen was a virgin because Ptolemy was too young to consummate their marriage. Virgin or not, she was willing and able. Caesar was famed for his voracious sexual appetite—Cleopatra was apparently sensual enough to fulfill it.

The following morning, Ptolemy stumbled upon his sister in flagrante delicto with the Roman conqueror. A famous story relates that the boy king threw down his crown and whined, “It’s not fair!” Ptolemy did not survive long. Under the guise of offering military advice, Caesar insisted Ptolemy lead his Egyptian subjects in battle. The boy’s body was found later that day at the bottom of a river, weighed down by his gold armor.

The throne restored, Caesar returned to Rome. He left Cleopatra with a parting gift: a son she named Caesarion, or Little Caesar. Caesar was already married and unable to formally acknowledge his only son. Nonetheless, four years later he invited Cleopatra and Caesarion to Rome. By now, Caesar had conquered much of the world, like Cleopatra’s distant relative Alexander the Great. Their love affair reignited, scandalizing Rome. Caesar even installed a statue of Cleopatra as Venus, which did not win him fans. Many thought Caesar would eventually name himself king and marry Cleopatra, thus creating an empire where West would meet East.

All this came to an end in 44 BCE on the infamous ides of March. Caesar’s will did not acknowledge Caesarion; instead he left his empire to his grand-nephew Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Octavian. Power struggles soon divided the empire between Octavian and Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand warrior.

Though Cleopatra fled with her son, Rome soon came a-knockin’ at Egypt’s door. The savvy queen decided to repeat history, this time with Antony. If she allied with him, their forces could triumph over Octavian to rule the world, which Caesarion would inherit when he came of age.

Like Cleopatra’s father, Antony was of a Dionysian bent; like Caesar, he was older and susceptible to the queen’s charms. She invited Antony to dinner upon her barge and appeared dressed as a goddess. Locals whispered that Aphrodite was mating with Dionysus. Aphrodite overwhelmed Dionysus with luxurious sensuality: a carpet made of rose petals, a banquet of the finest wines and foods, all served on bejeweled gold plates while guests reclined on embroidered couches. Cleopatra capped the evening by dissolving an expensive pearl in a goblet of vinegar, which she appeared to drink. This spectacle served to illustrate the overwhelming wealth of Egypt that would be at Antony’s disposal—if he gave in to the queen’s will.

The two lovers brought out the worst in each other. Antony initiated Cleopatra into his Society of the Inimitable Livers, which involved much alcohol, food, and gambling. Cleopatra took advantage of Antony’s natural generosity and loyalty. He helped her win new territories, alienating him from the Roman Empire, and agreed to marry her. To do so, Antony abandoned his pregnant wife, who happened to be Octavian’s sister—not a smart move. Plutarch wrote that Antony was “besotted with the woman as well as with the wine” and that she controlled him with love potions, a claim that reveals more about the charms of Cleopatra than the truth of the matter.

To create a dynasty of their own, Cleopatra spawned three children with Antony. Antony acknowledged Caesarion as Caesar’s son, undermining the legitimacy of Octavian’s rule. Not surprisingly, Octavian declared war on them. Fate was not kind: It took time, but Rome’s forces thumped Cleopatra and Antony. Their allies abandoned the couple like rats off a sinking ship.

Trapped, Cleopatra and Antony huddled down in Alexandria to await the worst; the Society of Inimitable Livers became the Society of Those Who Die Together. To avoid capture by Octavian, Antony stabbed himself. One legend claims that on the night he died, a strange clamor of horns sounded, then faded away—Dionysus abandoning his own. Cleopatra chose a more elegant method to dispatch herself. She arranged for a basket of figs to be smuggled to her, with two poisonous asps hidden within it.

In death, Cleopatra became Egypt’s last pharaoh. Caesarion did not survive to inherit his mother’s throne—Octavian decided that two Caesars were one too many and arranged for his murder.


Choose your allies well, or they will comeback to bite you in the asp.

Empress Wang

23 CE

ittle is known about Empress Wang beyond her birth, her marriages, and her death—even her first name has been lost to history. Even so, one dominant characteristic emerges from these sketchy details: The girl had some serious backbone.

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The woman who would become known as Empress Wang was fathered in 8 BCE by Wang Mang, a commander of arms who possessed towering hubris gilded with Confucian idealism. Wang Mang took advantage of the troubled times to become acting regent of China, gaining support by promising the poor an acre of land for every plow. To strengthen his rule, he married his four-year-old daughter to Emperor Ping, who was only three. Little did Wang Mang realize that his plotting would eventually spell doom for the preschool empress.

By the time she was twelve, Empress Wang was a widow—most believe that Wang Mang poisoned Ping’s wine when the boy proved to be less than tractable. Wang Mang continued to trade his daughter’s hand for power. This time, Empress Wang’s husband was a more easily manipulated two-year-old, also in line to the throne. To express her disapproval of her father’s actions, Empress Wang refused to attend any imperial functions and swore fealty to her first husband, whom she appears to have genuinely loved and mourned.

Some years later, an uprising ousted Wang Mang from power. Empress Wang realized that no matter whose side she took, she was royally screwed. A solution presented itself when the palace was set on fire by her subjects. Rather than live as her father’s puppet, she threw herself into the flames.


Don’t let others’ ambitions destroy you.

End-of-Chapter QuizorWhat We Have Learned So Far

1. Why was Athaliah bad news during biblical times?

         a. Her mother was Jezebel, queen of the hootchy-kootchy.

         b. She had a murderous streak as wide as the Red Sea.

         c. Her recipe for matzo balls was subpar.

         d. Her name was difficult to pronounce.


2. Which of the following statements is incorrect about Olympias?

         a. She had the hots for Dionysus and snakes.

         b. She thought her son, Alexander, was the best thing to hit the Macedonian empire since the wheel.

         c. She encouraged her husband, Philip, to ratchet up his wife count—polygamy is fun!

         d. She was played by Angelina Jolie in averylong Oliver Stone movie.


3. Why did Amastris wed so often?

         a. The thrill of the bridal registry.

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         b. She did not believe in premarital sex.

         c. She had a good divorce lawyer who got her great alimony.

         d. Survival, baby.


4. Cleopatra and her sisters Berenice and Arsinoe:

         a. Were one big happy family.

         b. Wore the same crown size.

         c. Plotted against one other to grab the throne of Egypt.

         d. Were caught in flagrante delicto with Marc Antony.


5. Why was Empress Wang doomed?

         a. She liked to play with matches.

         b. Her father valued personal ambition over paternal affection.

         c. She valued personal integrity over physical survival.

         d. She didn’t know her first name.

The snake, friend of Dionysus


1, b: While there’s a soupçon of truth in answers a and d, b takes the cake. 2, c: She bumped off Philip’s other wife and offspring to minimize Alexander’s competition. Angelina played her with a Transylvanian accent and lots of snake action. 3, d. 4, c: Only Cleopatra survived to wear the crown. 5, b: While c is also a consideration, the reality is that her father’s ambitions shoved her into that tight spot.


Dancing in the Dark Ages


It is a pity that we so often succeed in our endeavors to deceive each other.

Empress Irene

Cleopatra’s choice of death by asp was a media-worthy finale to her notorious reign. It inspired historians to disseminate her story throughout the Western world—an early example of celebrity journalism at its finest—and revved the next generation of queens into action. These women learned from Cleopatra’s cautionary saga for better and for worse. Determined to take their fate into their own hands, they were rough, tough, and savvy. Plus they were willing to tango with armies.

The era of the warrior queen spanned the late classical period through the Dark Ages, or early medieval period. One warrior queen conscious of the Cleopatra Effect was Zenobia, who ruled the Palmyrene Empire in the third century. This luscious, clever beauty—descriptions of Zenobia make her sound like a Nigella Lawson generously spiced with cojones—claimed the Egyptian queen as a distant relation through her mother. Unlike Cleopatra, Zenobia survived to tell the tale after waging war. Alas, this was not to be the case for Boudicca, who lived two centuries before Zenobia, and Brunhilde, who lived five centuries after Boudicca. Both Boudicca and Brunhilde were tenacious, charismatic regents. Both also became involved in grudge wars that ultimately led to their destruction.

Dying in battle was bad enough. But by the early sixth century of the Dark Ages, the new-and-not-so-female-friendly Salic law was implemented to complicate the lives of queens throughout Europe. Though it would take some time for the full ramifications of these laws to flower, Salic law was often interpreted to mean that royal women could not inherit property or the right to rule. As such, it would influence dynastic I dos for centuries to come, generating some very unhappy marriages for the sake of preserving power and wealth. Salic law would hang around European courts in various forms until the gilded age of Queen Victoria.



ore than a thousand years before William Wallace led his blue-painted troops into battle, another warrior made a stand for freedom on Albion’s bright shores—a queen named Boudicca. The tale of Boudicca’s rise and fall is the stuff from which legends and high-profile films are made. Mel Gibson even optioned her story, inspiringVarietymagazine to dub his film in development “Braveheart with a bra.”

Little is known of Queen Boudicca before she donned armor. Born of royal blood around 30 CE, she was married to Prasutagus, the king of the Iceni tribe of Celtic Britain; the Iceni territories were located in what is now East Anglia. The historian Dio Cassius described the queen in almost superhuman terms. He wrote that she possessed the powerful frame of an Amazon and a mane of fiery-red hair. As for Boudicca’s husband, Prasutagus was wealthy and pragmatic. He ruled by kissing up to the Romans in a we’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you’ll-scratch-ours arrangement; at that time, Britain was overrun by Romans who made life difficult for those who didn’t render unto Caesar as demanded.

Everyone got along and even sang a chorus or two of “Kumbaya.” However, this peaceful stasis came to a halt when the king died in 60 CE.

At the time of Prasutagus’s passing, the couple had two daughters, whose names have been lost to history. The king’s will stated that his estate was to be divided in three, between his two daughters and the Roman empire; Boudicca was to act as regent on the princesses’ behalf. By doing so, Prasutagus hoped that the Romans would be satisfied with their share and leave his girls alone. But the Romans got greedy and grabbed it all.

Boudicca did not take the theft lying down. The formidable queen hustled to the Roman authorities and gave them a piece of her mind. In response, she was flogged and her two daughters raped, stealing their precious virginity. And that was just theamuse-bouche: The Romans next claimed the rest of the Iceni lands for themselves.


It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters…. This is a woman’s resolve. As for men, they may live and be slaves.


But Boudicca refused to drown in a puddle of tears. Instead, she grabbed a sword, gathered an army of one hundred thousand soldiers, and went off to kick some serious Roman ass.

Boudicca first attacked Colchester, a Roman colony known back then as Camulodunum. Her forces systematically leveled the city. Years later, archaeologists dated the queen’s visit from a layer of red ash. Next up was Londinium, or London. This time, Boudicca’s fury extended to the Roman matrons, who were impaled naked on long stakes. Verulamium, modern-day Saint Albans, met a similar fate. Dio Cassius later wrote, “All this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame.”

But the apocalyptic destruction of three cities wasn’t enough to slake Boudicca’s anger. The queen pushed her luck one last time to wage war in a location probably in the West Midlands. This time, the Roman army got smart. Using a wedge formation, they cornered Boudicca’s forces. It is believed that the queen perished here, possibly by her own hand, along with eighty thousand of her troops.

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Centuries after her defeat, Boudicca’s very distant successor Queen Victoria channeled strength from her namesake—“Boudicca” was Old Welsh for “victorious.” The Celtic warrior queen even inspired verse from Tennyson, Victoria’s poet laureate. He wrote:

So the Queen Boadicea, standing loftily charioted,

Brandishing in her hand a dart and rolling glances lioness-like,

Yell’d and shriek’d between her daughters in her fierce volubility.


Have an exit strategy.



ike Boudicca, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra chose to lead her people into battle rather than suffer the indignities of Roman dominance. Zenobia lived two hundred years after Boudicca had met her unfortunate end. Presumably she learned from the warrior queen’s tragic example, since she wrangled a happier fate.

Zenobia was famed for her sultry beauty, keen intelligence, and athletic prowess. Though she was of Arabian descent, she boasted of being related to Cleopatra through her Egyptian mother, who taught her to speak Egyptian fluently. Zenobia became queen through marriage to Odaenathus, the king of Palmyra. Now part of Syria, the wealthy merchant city of Palmyra served as the rallying point of the Palmyrene Empire and had splintered off from the mighty Roman Empire. Zenobia proved herself her husband’s equal on hunting trips but, like the goddess Diana, refused to sleep with him save for the purpose of conception.

After Odaenathus was assassinated in 267, Zenobia decided her personal loss was an opportunity for professional growth—she took charge of the Palmyrene Empire as regent for her young son, Vaballathus. Greedy for power and territory, the queen ambitiously invaded and conquered Egypt, Syria, and beyond, greatly expanding her empire—and treading on the Roman Empire’s toes. Rome took notice and decided to welcome Palmyra back into the fold.

Zenobia in chains.

Zenobia’s vision for her empire did not include Roman rule. Though an oracle warned that her army would be picked off by Rome like doves by hawks, Zenobia was too stubborn to back down. She personally led her forces into battle on horseback, her beautiful long dark hair rippling behind her on the wind as she charged forward…toward disaster.

Palmyra was captured. The Palmyrenes who refused to surrender were executed; those who remained were brought to trial, including the queen.

Ever wily, Zenobia batted her lush eyelashes and testified that she had been led astray by her advisers and didn’t know a thing about waging war. The Roman emperor Aurelian didn’t buy her story but decided she was worth more alive than dead. In Syria, the queen was shackled to a camel and paraded through the streets as a symbol of Roman victory; in Rome, she was forced to walk in front of Aurelian’s triumphal car, her comely body adorned in gold chains weighed down by lustrous jewels.

TheHistoria Augusta, a less-than-reliable third-century document, claims that after this humiliation Zenobia committed suicide in tribute to her ancestress Cleopatra. Another story states she succumbed to disease en route to Rome. However, the most credible accounts suggest that Zenobia’s only injury was to her pride. Unlike the queen of the Nile, she wanted to live—even if it was without a throne.

These accounts report that the rest of Zenobia’s life was most bourgeois. Aurelian freed her and, as a consolation prize, gave her a villa in Tivoli. The former queen decided that if you can’t beat them, join them: She married a Roman senator and spent her remaining years in considerable luxury. In time, she won renown as a philosopher and socialite.

Since nothing more is known of Zenobia, it is assumed that she died peacefully in her sleep after living to a ripe old age and surrounded by her loved ones, like that old lady inTitanic.


It’s better to be alive without a crownthan dead with one.

Empress Dowager Hu


he life of Empress Dowager Hu was decorated with mind-twisting contradictions. As the concubine of an emperor, she was willing to risk death to bring forth an heir; yet she willingly participated in her son’s murder. Despite considering herself a devout Buddhist, she rubbed out those who displeased her without a qualm. One story relates that to eliminate a female competitor, Hu forced her to enter a Buddhist convent where she was welcomed by an assassin; the assassin had been hired by the empress to do her dirty work.

Hu’s blood-soaked rise to power began in the early part of sixth-century China, when she was a not so sweet young thing. Her beauty and sharp intelligence gained the appreciative notice of Emperor Xuanwu, who took Hu as one of his concubine consorts. Tradition held that consorts who had given birth to crown princes were executed to avoid future power struggles.

But Hu bucked tradition. When she discovered she was ripe with the heirless emperor’s child, she ignored those who warned her to end the pregnancy. Instead, she altruistically argued that it was more important for Xuanwu to have a successor than for her to live.


Empress dowager was the official title given to the mother of an underage emperor. Many empress dowagers ruled the nation until their sons reached maturity. Some of them gained so much power that they refused to cede control, leading to unstable political environments. For example, the Empress Dowager Cixi was so skillful with her political machinations that she was able to rule China for four decades during the early twentieth century. Others were content to merely bully their sons’ brides into submission—they were the stereotypical mothers-in-law from hell.

Hu’s big gamble paid off. After she gave birth to a son named Xiaoming, the emperor spared her life, perhaps out of appreciation for the risk she’d assumed to pass on his genes. However, the power struggles that many feared came to pass five years later, after Xuanwu suddenly died. Five-year-old Xiaoming was crowned emperor and Hu became empress dowager, ruling on behalf of her son.

Empress Dowager Hu was a mixed bag as a regent. She could be extraordinarily generous and progressive—as well as extraordinarily cruel. She set up regional offices where her subjects could safely air their complaints about governmental misdeeds; she also gave away tons of money to build magnificent Buddhist temples. On the other hand, her hair-trigger temper often snapped homicidal over the most piddling offenses.

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All children, even sons of empresses, grow up. When Xiaoming turned fifteen, he relieved his mother of her rule. Hu was not pleased. She undermined Xiaoming’s reign by utilizing loyal government officials who would follow her will. To limit his mother’s influence, Xiaoming arranged for her lover to be executed. Hu retaliated by poisoning Xiaoming to death.

This time Hu had gone too far—even her fiercest allies withdrew their support. To save her skin, the empress hid in a Buddhist convent, where she shaved her head to take the vows of a nun. Nonetheless, her enemies tracked her down. They punished Hu with the only absolute that would stop her.

Empress Hu was drowned in the Yellow River in 528, almost two decades after her son’s risky birth. As a posthumous slap, Hu was granted the not so honorable title of Empress Ling—“the unattentive empress.”


To hold on to power, be consistent in your dealings.



ucked within a scenic corner of Tuscany, Lake Bolsena lies inside the crater of a dormant volcano. It is a large lake—expansive enough to host several islands, and filled with pristine waters that plunge some five hundred feet down. The legends associated with Lake Bolsena are as dark as the lake is deep. One tells of the fourth-century martyr Christina who, after suffering the usual array of imaginative tortures necessary for beatification, was thrown into the lake while wearing a heavy stone necklace. She instantly bobbed back to the surface cradled within the arms of an angel. Two centuries later, the Ostrogoth queen Amalasuntha was exiled to one of Lake Bolsena’s more remote islands. Alas, no heavenly visitor manifested to save her life when she was strangled in her bath one spring morning.

It was a brutal end for a monarch whose main sin was an attempt to import the enlightenment of Roman culture to the war-loving Goths. Consider Amalasuntha a victim of Dark Ages anti-intellectualism.

Amalasuntha was the only daughter of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, and Audofleda, a Frankish princess. By all accounts, Amalasuntha’s education was extraordinary. She was educated in Ravenna, where the best of the Byzantine and Roman empires mingled in a high-culture cocktail party. She spoke fluent Latin and Italian as well as her native language. Besides being notoriously literate, the princess was noted for her political acumen and great beauty.

In other words, Amalasuntha had the whole package, if you were a man not intimidated by erudite women. She won the approval of Eutharic, a prince from neighboring Spain; he wed the princess, thus uniting the two branches of their tribes in holy political might. The contemporary historian Jordanes described Eutharic as “a young man strong in wisdom and valor and health of body.” Nonetheless, Eutharic died early in their marriage, leaving her the mother of a son, Athalaric, and a daughter, Matasuentha. A short time later in 526, Amalasuntha’s father joined her husband in the grave.

With the two big guys buried, eight-year-old Athalaric inherited the throne, elevating Amalasuntha as his regent until he reached maturity. It is here that most women of her era probably would have lain low to protect their assets—but not Amalasuntha. Instead, she decided to use her lofty position to refine the unwashed Goth masses. The best way to do this? Through King Athalaric, whom she determined would have the best Roman education available.

The public outcry was as if Amalasuntha had switched the channel from WWE to PBS mid-match—for their monarch, the populace wanted a vava-voom warrior, not some la-di-da student. Her best intentions were criticized as an attack on Goth values. After all, the Goths had conquered the Romans, not the other way around.

Undeterred, the regent hired the most eminent scholars of her time to shape her son’s mind. As for Athalaric, he embraced his studies with spring break enthusiasm and drank himself to death by the age of sixteen.

Amalasuntha was smart enough to read the writing on the wall; Jordanes wrote that she “feared she might be despised by the Goths on account of the weakness of her sex.” To protect her overeducated self, she arranged for three of her enemies to be murdered and invited her Tuscan cousin Theodahad to keep her company on the throne. This turned out to be a very bad move. Within several months, Theodahad pushed Amalasuntha off the throne and into exile in Tuscany.

Amalasuntha’s end arrived quickly. She lasted only a few days on that lonely island on Lake Bolsena before death visited as she bathed. After all, a clean corpse is a godly corpse.


Don’t let your educationmake you stupid.



nce upon a time there were two sisters who were beautiful princesses. The sisters were fathered by Athanagild, the Visigoth king of Spain, and given the fanciful names of Galswintha and Brunhilde. They were raised at the glittering court at Toledo, where it was assumed that they would marry brilliantly and live happily ever after. When the time came, their father agreed for them to wed two powerful brothers, tying the sisters in marriage as well as by blood.

And here is where the two sisters’ fairy tale went seriously awry.

Brunhilde, the younger sister, was the first to tie the knot in 567. She married King Sigebert, who ruled the realm of Austrasia, which was part of the Frankish kingdom (now France) ruled by the Merovingian dynasty. Sigebert, aka King Charming, was enchanted by his bride’s virtue, comeliness, and intelligence. The couple fell madly in love. As for Galswintha, she drew the short stick. She wed King Charming’s brother Chilperic, who ruled Neustria, Austrasia’s next-door neighbor in the Frankish kingdom.

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Chilperic with Galswintha’s successor. She wasn’t as nice as she was pretty.

Chilperic was renowned as a libertine who had bedded and impregnated more than a few miladies at court; rumor held that he was especially tight with his latest concubine, Fredegund, who was originally a serving maid. The historian and cleric Gregory of Tours described Chilperic as “the Nero and Herod of our time.” Despite these less-than-stellar portents, Galswintha’s father agreed to the match so he could scoop up additional Frankish support for Spain. The king mollified his conscience by asking Chilperic to clean up his act around his daughter.

Galswintha and Chilperic were married in Rouen. Initially Galswintha was received with great honor as queen—Chilperic was delighted with the treasures she had brought in her dowry. However, this felicitious state did not last long. Fredegund reappeared in the king’s bed and grabbed every opportunity to harass the new queen. Poor Galswintha begged to return to Toledo, even offering to forfeit her dowry. Chilperic refused.

A year after the wedding, Galswintha was discovered lifeless in her bed—Chilperic, influenced by the urgings of Fredegund, had ordered a slave to strangle his wife. Though the king wept crocodile tears, everyone knew the deal. He also flaunted his passion for his coconspirator, which didn’t deter suspicions.

Several days later, the funeral meats coldly furnished the marriage tables—King Chilperic wed Fredegund, making her queen of Neustria.


A Tale of Two Sisters

(and Two Brothers)


Two sisters marrying two brothers sounds so downright jovial, like the denouement of a Shakespearean comedy. In this instance, brotherly love proved deadly for both sisters, Galswintha directly and Brunhilde indirectly.


Once a rat, always a rat.



he bonds of sisterhood transcend the grave. In the case of Brunhilde of Austrasia, it can also lead to it.

After her sister Galswintha’s murder in 568, Brunhilde was transformed from the wife of King Charming into a monarch with a mission—and the mission was revenge. To gain it, the queen of Austrasia incited a forty-year war between her realm and Neustria that made the Hatfields and the McCoys seem downright Merchant-Ivory.

How was a queen able to get armies marching over a victim of domestic violence? Ironically, it was Brunhilde’s happy marriage that did the trick. It was easy for her to sway her husband to her will, just as Fredegund’s whisperings had prodded Chilperic to uxoricide. It helped that King Charming wasn’t too fond of his brother in the first place. Nor were the rest of the Merovingian blue bloods, who joined en masse to dethrone black sheep Chilperic over the murder. One would have considered justice served, but Chilperic soon regained his crown, much to Brunhilde’s chagrin.

Every good fairy tale needs a wicked queen—Chilperic’s wife, Fredegund, made an exemplary one. As the conflict escalated, she revealed herself to be as unscrupulous in war as she was in peace. At one point, Fredegund sent a clerk to assassinate Brunhilde. When the clerk returned unsuccessful, she had his feet and hands cut off in punishment.

By 575, the war had claimed the life of King Charming—Fredegund persuaded two slaves to attack him with poisoned knives. Then Brunhilde was imprisoned in Rouen. All seemed lost until one of Chilperic’s excess sons from his philandering days visited her out of curiosity. Turned out that the queen still retained her allure, so he wed and bedded her. Before the forbidden marriage could be annulled by the church—after all, Brunhilde was his uncle’s widow—he helped her escape.

With Brunhilde free again to do as she wished, the war dragged on. As the decades passed, more royals lost their lives. Chilperic, the guy who started it all, was stabbed to death in 584, leaving Fredegund conveniently in charge. Then Fredegund died in 597, presumably of natural causes. Fredegund’s son Chlotar proved to be a chip off the old block when he took over his mom’s throne. By now, Brunhilde had lost any popularity she may have held—no one remembered the murder of her sister, only the copious bloodshed that had ensued.

In the end, Fredegund triumphed from beyond the grave over her old enemy: The armies of Austrasia and Neustria joined as one to overthrow Brunhilde. King Chlotar II arranged an execution for the conquered queen that would have brought tears of pride to his mother’s eyes. After torturing Brunhilde for three days, he paraded her on a camel before the entire army. Her limbs were chained to wild horses, who quartered her, and her remains thrown into a bonfire.

Thus was Brunhilde’s spirit conscribed to the great beyond. Hopefully she met Galswintha there, who high-fived her for her filial loyalty.

Drawing and Quartering

Call Brunhilde an unlucky exception to the rule: Women and royals usually weren’t executed by being drawn and quartered. This procedure was deployed on commoners guilty of various treasonous crimes. Nobles were granted the honor of a speedy death by beheading. Death by being drawn and quartered was far more prevalent in England and her colonies than in Europe during the Dark Ages.

The death was as horrible as it sounds. The condemned were usually hung before being dismembered by sword, rather than by horse—one would hope a much swifter and more merciful route to meeting the grim reaper.

Queen Brunhilde under stress.

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To keep your head,quit while you’re ahead.

Irene of Byzantium


rene of Byzantium was a woman ahead of her time. Instead of using warfare to gain power, she waged a postmodern battle of symbols and images not dissimilar to those on Madison Avenue today. Though Irene’s strategy worked on the populace for a while, eventually it became apparent that this empress wore no clothing.

Irene’s origins gave little indication of the voracious drive that would make her the the first female ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Born of Greek nobility in 752, one story claims that Irene was an orphan doomed to a quiet life until her beauty caught the eye of Leo IV, the emperor of Byzantium. He married her in 769. Two years later, Irene did the good empress thing and provided him with an heir, Constantine. Nevertheless, their marriage was troubled. Irene was an iconophile, which was verboten by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Leo ceased marital relations with the empress after discovering her hidden stash—eternal damnation was far less appealing than the pleasures of the flesh.


Icon veneration was controversial in eighth-and ninth-century Byzantium. The iconoclasts believed icons violated the first commandment ban on graven images. The iconophiles found them useful tools for contemplating the divine—they thought icons represented the physicality of God as manifested in Jesus. In 754 the church ruled, “If anyone shall endeavor to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colors which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, let him be anathema!” Despite this, people—like Irene—still worshiped icons in secret.

Still, Irene harbored secret ambitions, which she was able to fulfill after Leo’s unexpected demise in 780. The emperor had taken a sacred crown from Hagia Sophia for his personal use. Problem was the heavily jeweled crown rubbed his brow until it blistered; the blisters became infected. After Leo’s death, Irene arranged for additional pearls to decorate the crown, which she returned to the church in time for display at Christmas mass. She also became regent for ten-year-old Constantine, who was much too young to rule.

Now in charge, Irene restored icon veneration, which pleased her subjects immensely. In another populist move, she cut taxes, which pushed the treasury into the red. As a corrective, she minted and distributed coins bearing her portrait. Though her son was also on them, it was Irene who held the scepter and was labeledbasileus—emperor.

Not surprisingly, the empress refused to relinquish power when Constantine came of age. He pushed her off the throne in 790 but proved to be an incompetent ruler. Seven years later, Irene took matters back into her own hands. She imprisoned her son and had him blinded, an act considered marginally more merciful than outright assassination.

Nevertheless, Irene’s days on the throne were numbered. She was deposed by her finance minister in 802 and exiled to the island of Lesbos. The woman who was once empress spent the remainder of her life there spinning wool for clothing.


Make sure your style has substance.


Despite her misdeeds, the Eastern Orthodox Church did not forget all Irene had done to further the restoration of icon veneration. For this, the former empress was beatified as a saint, thus reforming Irene’s tarnished public image.

Bust of Irene on an eighth-century coin.

End-of-Chapter Quiz


What We Have Learned So Far

1. Why did Boudicca battle the Roman Empire?

         a. She wanted to prove to her daughters that the Romans were wusses.

         b. She was tired of converting exchange rates for Roman tourists.

         c. The Romans got too cozy with her land and her daughters’ chastity.

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         d. She knew it was a great branding opportunity for her tribe.


2. To hold on to her throne, Empress Hu was willing to do anything but:

         a. Plot against her enemies.

         b. Slip poison into her son’s favorite dish.

         c. Watch her favorite lover get bumped off by her son.

         d. Cough up lots and lots of dough for her favorite Buddhist temples.


3. Amalasuntha’s many talents included:

         a. The ability to speak several languages fluently.

         b. A sensitivity to the cultural legacy of the Goths.

         c. The wisdom to make the most of her time in exile.

         d. Knowing which scholars were da bomb of her era.


4. What did Brunhilde and Galswinthanothave in common?

         a. The same parents.

         b. The same in-laws.

         c. The same happily-ever-after marital history.

         d. The same grudge against Fredegund, that slut.


5. Irene of Byzantium was known for:

         a. Her affection for icons—religious tchotchkes for the devout home decorator.

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         b. Her sublime skills as a mother.

         c. Fiscal brilliance to rival a Rockefeller.

         d. The serenity to accept the things she could not change.



1, c: The Romans pushed Boudicca too far when they raped her daughters and stole their inheritances. 2, c: This was the final act that turned mother against son. 3, a and d. 4, c: Brunhilde had a happy marriage; Galswintha was murdered by her husband. 5, a: Irene’s icon-worshipping ways led her husband to reject her in the bedroom.


Middle Age Crisis


I am much to be pitied both as a queen and as a woman: When one is fifteen a crown is heavy to wear, and I have not the liberty of the meanest of my subjects….

Joan of Naples, via Alexandre Dumas

One would suspect that, after the travails of the Dark Ages, life could only improve for queens of the later Middle Ages. It didn’t. Next in line to ratchet up the royal fatality count were the Crusades and the Black Death (aka the bubonic plague).

To avoid infection by the plague, most blue-blooded females sought sanctuary from the larger populace. Boccaccio’sDecamerondescribes one such scenario, where a group of noblemen and-women retreat to an isolated villa to pass the time until the worst of the epidemic passes. Even so, without an emergency broadcasting system in place, there was little to prevent a princess traveling to a distant dynastic alliance from strolling straight into plague territory. Some ended up wearing their bridal veil as a burial shroud; Joan of England, fiancée of Pedro of Castile, was one such unfortunate victim. Feminine vulnerabilities were also made apparent in childbirth, which killed approximately 20 percent of medieval mama wannabes—clearly this was not the age ofChildbirth Without Fear.

As for the Crusades, royal women were generally more prone to survival than their male counterparts—usually they weren’t the ones marching into battle. Nonetheless, Sibyl of Jerusalem chose to participate in the Third Crusade, only to lose her life and daughters as a result. It is hoped that the powers that be appreciated her sacrifice.

While it is unknown how many people died during these religious wars, it is estimated that as many as thirty million folks were killed by the plague—approximately half of Europe’s population at that time. That written, marriage proved to be a far more deadly enterprise for many queens. Without divorce readily available, murders were often initiated by unhappy spouses and uppity relatives eager to rid themselves of an unwanted alliance. The deaths of Gertrude of Meran, Blanche of Bourbon, Joan of Naples, and Maria of Hungary all serve as cautionary tales for those eager to embrace nuptial delights.

Urraca of Castile


n 1109 Urraca, the daughter of King Alfonso VI, became the queen of Castille and León; these two kingdoms sat cozily next to each other in what is now Spain.

Until this point, Urraca’s sheltered life was filled with the usual princess distractions of getting married and getting knocked up. She was wed as a child to Raymond of Burgundy, with whom she had a son and a daughter before his premature demise in 1107. Becoming queen wasn’t even on Urraca’s radar, but all this changed when Urraca’s only brother was killed in battle in 1108, making the widowed princess heir to the throne. Soon after, her father, King Alfonso VI, went to his eternal reward. Next thing Urraca knew, everyone was addressing her as “your majesty.”

Before his death, King Alfonso had arranged for Urraca to exchange vows with another Alfonso—Alfonso I of Aragon. This Alfonso was better known as Alfonso the Battler because of his prowess as a warrior. Problem was Urraca and Alfonso Junior shared the same great-grandfather—the church considered the union too close for comfort. The couple were wed nonetheless, but the ensuingscandalepushed the marriage to the breaking point, especially after Alfonso proved to be a battler at home as well as on the battlefield.

But Urraca was tough: The queen dumped Alfonso when she did not promptly conceive an heir by him. One wonders if the reason for their lack of issue went beyond the horrors of domestic abuse. The king was fond of declaring, “The man devoted to war needs the companionship of men, not women.”

Urraca and Alfonso’s disastrous union was annulled in 1114. Regardless, resentment between the two monarchs continued to simmer. It exploded into a long and bloody war after Alfonso used his finely honed military skills to grab some of his exwife’s lands. Urraca was woman enough to fight back and, with the aid of her son by her first husband, she emerged victorious.

Urraca proved to be as passionate in love as she was in war. While she never married again, she did enjoy a bevy of friendships with benefits. This ultimately proved to be her Achilles’ heel—in the end the woman who had reigned over much of Spain during such tumultuous times was most likely undone by childbirth. TheHistoria Compostelana, an anonymously written history of that era, relates that Urraca got knocked up by a lover and perished in labor.

At the time of her death, the queen had reached the advanced maternal age of forty-six, after reigning more than capably for seventeen years.


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Be they of royal or common blood, women of ye olde times considered childbirth a dark passage that could drag both mother and child to early graves. Puerperal fever, a form of blood poisoning linked to unsanitary conditions, was recorded by Hippocrates in ancient Greece. It took until 1847 for the connection between puerperal fever and germs to be made. Viennese physician Ignaz Phillippe Semmelweis noted a dramatic decline in postpartum maternal deaths after he began washing his hands before attending a birth. Afterward, the good Herr Doktor confessed, “God only knows the number of women whom I have consigned prematurely to the grave.”

Puerperal fever was Scylla to the Charybdis of obstructed births. Forceps were not introduced until the 1700s, so too many women expired after days of unproductive labor. Sawbones foolhardy enough to attempt a cesarean usually saved the child at the expense of the mother.

Even if a woman survived with a healthy, living child, there was still the torture of labor to endure without an epidural. Many judged these pains punishment for Eve’s trespasses in Eden.


Biology can be a bitch.

Sibyl of Jerusalem


eanwhile, in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, the Crusades were in full swing. These holy wars were initially intended to return the Muslim-occupied lands of Jerusalem and beyond to the dominion of those who followed the Christian faith. However, the Crusades soon became a venue for mercenary knights to seek their fortunes and for the pious to sacrifice their lives, conveniently reducing the population on both counts. Good times.

By the end of the First Crusade in 1099, Jerusalem had been dragged back into the Christian fold, though the holy war festivities would continue for another two centuries. The new-and-improved Kingdom of Jerusalem was set up as a traditional monarchy and began acquiring neighboring territories to flesh out its skeletal realm—an encroachment not unnoticed by border Muslim states. It was into this powder keg of a situation that Sibyl inherited the throne of Jerusalem in 1186.

Queen Sibyl was born around 1160 to Amalric I and Agnes of Courtenay. Amalric became king of Jerusalem in 1162 after his brother died. Interestingly, Sibyl’s mother was never crowned queen because the church considered their union incestuous—Amalric and Agnes shared a common great-great-grandfather. The royal marriage was annulled after Amalric became king, though Sibyl’s and her brother Baldwin’s legitimacy were upheld.

Gettin’ hitched, medieval style. Adapted from a period manuscript.

Sibyl’s hand in marriage was a hot property, especially after it came out that Baldwin had leprosy—ergo, anyone who gained her hand would wind up king of Jerusalem once father and brother bit the dust. Sibyl’s marital history took on Liz Taylor proportions as she became engaged, married, widowed, and annulled in varying combinations. She met her soul mate in Guy of Lusignan, whom she wed in 1180. Two daughters soon followed, joining her son, Baldwin V, from an earlier marriage.

Six years later, Amalric and Baldwin the leper were cold in their graves and Sibyl became queen. For numerous reasons, the powers that be decided that Guy was a less than desirable king. They pressured Sibyl to dump him pronto. But the new queen proved to be wily beyond her twentysomething years. She agreed to their request, as long as she could choose her next husband. Sibyl remarried Guy before the ink had a chance to dry on the annulment decree.

While all these matrimonial shenanigans were taking place, the Muslims had been united in their outrage by Saladin, sultan of Egypt. A mere year after Sibyl became queen, Saladin successfully invaded Jerusalem, kicking Sibyl and Guy into exile and setting the stage for the Third Crusade.

Queen Sibyl died in 1190 during the Third Crusade after an epidemic infected most of her military camp. Her two young daughters expired with her.


If at First You Don’t Succeed


As a ruling monarch, Queen Sibyl was quite the catch on the medieval-era matrimonial market.


When you wage war for God,you may inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Gertrude of Meran


everal hundred years before Shakespeare wrote “To be or not to be,” there was another Queen Gertrude who was not to be. This Gertrude was born in the seaside duchy of Meran and became the wife of Andrew II, the king of Hungary, at the beginning of the thirteenth century. But like Hamlet’s ill-starred mother, she became entangled in unseen conspiracies that would lead to the grave.

Much of Gertrude’s misfortune can be traced to timing. She married into the Hungarian nobility during a tricky period of transition. Her husband, Andrew, was in the midst of transferring lands from the crown to the people, a process that had begun during his predecessor’s reign. Some of the lesser nobles became impatient for their share and perceived any favor shown to another as a slight against their rights. Gertrude took the fall after several of her relatives were granted high positions at court. True, Andrew was the crown behind the appointments, but it mattered not. Several jealous Hungarian aristocrats expressed their extreme displeasure by murdering the queen in 1213.

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Béla IV. A Hamlet with a difference.

One account states Gertrude was assaulted while out hunting. Andrew was unable to protect her, since he was off squelching a rebellion in neighboring territories. At the time of her demise, the queen was only twenty-eight years old, but had already fulfilled her biological duty by giving birth to five children. They included an heir, Béla IV, and two daughters to be married off, Anna Maria and Elisabeth.

Gertrude’s murderers were not punished until more than thirty years later. At the time of her death, King Andrew simply shrugged off the loss and married again—the situation was too politically explosive to seek justice. However, it was a different story after 1235, when Andrew died and Béla took over the throne of Hungary.

King Béla was Hamlet with a difference. While he was slow at avenging his mother’s murder, he was effective—he tracked down her murderers and punished them. Béla ruled Hungary until his death in 1270, more than half a century after Gertrude had been sacrificed for royal intrigue.


Justice served latedoesn’t remedy death served early.


Gertrude’s daughter Elisabeth of Hungary was as pious as her brother Béla was patient. Four years after her death in 1231, she was canonized.

Elisabeth spent her childhood apart from her mother. At the age of four, she was betrothed to Louis, the Landgrave of Thuringia, and sent to live in his court. The couple was very happy together, but when Louis died during the Fifth Crusade, Elisabeth devoted herself to good works and entered a convent. Her story inspired another Hungarian, Franz Liszt, to compose an oratorio.

The miracle of the roses: To avoid having her charity work discovered, St. Elisabeth tranformed bread for the poor into roses for the rich. Liszt used the incident in his oratorio of her life.

Oghul Ghaimish


he Mongol Empire was spread over the largest contiguous land mass in history. At its height, it held an estimated one hundred million subjects—about a third of the current population of the United States. The territory that comprised the empire encompassed the harshest environments in the world. Temperatures drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and spike to over 100 in the summer. Despite this, its location made it economically valuable. The Silk Road wound through the heart of the empire, channeling rich resources from China to Rome.

In other words, becoming the great khan, or emperor, of the Mongol Empire went far beyond simply bossing people around—it was about controlling the wealth of nations.

When Oghul Ghaimish grabbed the throne of the Mongol Empire, it was as if Melinda Gates made herself chairwoman of Microsoft without first checking in with the shareholders. Like Melinda, Oghul had connections: Her husband, Güyük, a grandson of Genghis Khan, ruled the empire until his death from alcoholism at the age of forty-two in 1248. She had familial precedent: Güyük’s mother, Töregene Khatun, served as regent for five years before amassing enough political might to transition her son onto the throne.

The Mongols were famed as fierce warriors.

Unlike Töregene, Oghul’s reign lasted only a few months. A nasty power struggle immediately erupted over the question of who should be the next ruler, which many thought should be someone other than the previous great khan’s widow.


What makes black magic different from white or other types of magic? It’s all about intention. With black magic, the sorcerer manipulates forces or spirits to perform his will without consideration of how it could affect or harm others. While white magic may also be used for selfish reasons, it cannot be employed to injure another.

As for Oghul herself, for good or ill, one could assume that the Mongolian khan knew something of magic since she was of royal origin. InThe Golden Bough, an encyclopedic treatise on the origins of magic and religion, Sir James Frazer writes that in many early societies “the king is frequently a magician as well as a priest; indeed he appears to have often attained to power by virtue of his supposed proficiency in the black or white art.”

Oghul’s primary opposition came from another grandson of Genghis Khan, Möngke, who called for a general election. To gain the throne, Möngke called in all his political favors. Oghul lost by a single vote.

But this not so decisive victory wasn’t enough for Möngke and his band of supporters. To completely disempower Oghul, they played the witch card: They accused her of employing black magic against the newly elected ruler.

The former regent was dragged to court and, after a sham trial, she was condemned to death. Perhaps to avoid the appearance of excessive force, the court allowed Oghul to commit suicide. It is unknown what method she chose.


Look before you leap onto the throne.

Theodora of Trebizond

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f you ruled an empire for just one year, what would you do? This was the situation presented to Empress Theodora, who reigned over Trebizond for one brief, giddy trip around the sun.

Trebizond was a Hellenistic state that emerged from the Byzantine Empire after the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople in 1204. Because Trebizond was on the coast of the Black Sea, it became an important stop on the Silk Road trade route to Asia. Beyond this, the empire was at the mercy of forces beyond its control—by 1461, it had been obliterated by the Ottomans. Though Trebizond is now part of modern-day Turkey, back in Theodora’s time it was considered the last hurrah of the glorious Greek empire.

During the sunset of the thirteenth century, Theodora was born the daughter of Emperor Manuel I and his second wife, a Georgian princess. After her father’s death in 1263, Theodora’s two older brothers, Andronikos and George, ruled Trebizond. By 1282, they were history: Andronikos was dead, George deposed by Mongol forces unrelated to Oghul Ghaimish.

Next up on the throne was Theodora’s younger half brother, John. This time, the princess did not wait around twiddling her thumbs. When John took off for Constantinople in 1284 to get married, she used her mother’s Georgian connections to seize the throne. Alas, their help was not enough—brother John deposed her one year later, putting the empress out of commission.

Theodora’s main accomplishment during her truncated reign was to have minted her own coins. Given the importance of Trebizond as a trade center, presumably these coins reached a wide circulation and outlasted her time on the throne. Like her precursor Irene, who ruled the Byzantine Empire a half century earlier, Theodora understood the importance of symbols. It is difficult to imagine what else she might have done had she ruled longer.

The once and past empress was fortunate that her brother did not execute her after he returned to Trebizond to regain his crown. Instead, Theodora experienced the imprisonment of religious orders. Since history tells us little more of her, it is assumed she spent the remainder of her life as a bride of Christ.

Religious Orders

In Theodora’s time and beyond, noblewomen faced two possible life plans (if they were allowed to choose at all): marry a man or marry Jesus. Some independent of mind and wealth picked the son of God over producing sons, finding a convent’s conscribed freedoms and intellectually vigorous environment more attractive than some old guy with land. After all, nuns could read, write, and even practice an art or two.

Most brides of Christ came from money, since a dowry was de rigueur to woo the church. While some girls were promised from childhood, others took religious orders when widowed. A few even sought sanctuary from toxic political environments. Hidden away from the world under a wimple, a deposed queen couldn’t plot her return to power—or could she?

The reality wasn’t so romantic.


To save your life,get thee to a nunnery.

Blanche of Bourbon


he princess trapped in the tower is a theme that’s launched a thousand fairy tales. In most of thesecontes des fées, the princess winds up rescued by a prince or a king, who eagerly claims her as his bride. But what happens when the princess is imprisoned by the king himself? Can there still be a happy ending?

In the case of Blanche of Bourbon, the answer was a resoundingnon. Though the French princess was renowned for her piety and comeliness, any happiness her future might have held was destroyed when her father, the Duke of Bourbon, decided to marry her to King Pedro of Castile.

On paper, the match must have looked fabulous; in real life, it was a mess. Yes, Blanche would become a queen—definitely an upgrade from princess. Yes, the couple was age appropriate—Blanche was a virginal fourteen and Pedro a studly eighteen. But Castile was a serpent’s nest of war because Pedro’s father had spawned seven bastards and accorded them too much power. To hold his throne, Pedro spent most of his free time killing off unsupportive relatives. These not so nice actions earned him thenom de royaleof Pedro the Cruel.

Pedro the not so nice.

The other portents for the match were equally bleak. The king’s previous fiancée, Princess Joan of England, had succumbed to the Black Death en route to marry him. Rumor held that she lucked out, since Pedro was already married—either an inconvenient impediment or a damnable sin, depending on how you looked at it.

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Were their aims true?

Blanche’s parents ignored the negative advertising and hoped for the best. In 1353, the princess dutifully traveled from France to Castile to wed the king. On her arrival, Pedro let Blanche cool her heels for several months; he was too busy canoodling with his mistress, Maria de Padilla, to welcome her. When the king finally did deign to make an appearance, he was less than cordial to Blanche—but he married her anyway.

Pedro’s strong aversion to Blanche puzzled his contemporaries, for the princess was no slouch in the charm department. The only explanation they could devise was that Maria had bewitched Pedro with evil spells. Yet Voltaire writes that the teenage princess “had fallen in love with the grand master of St. Jago, one of those very bastards who had waged war against him.” If this was true—frankly it seems out of character for Blanche—it reveals that she was more romantic than she was savvy. Fooling around with her fiancé’s half brother wasn’t the best way to encourage nuptial bliss.

In either case, Pedro overreacted by imprisoning his new wife in the famously fortified castle of Arevalo. Though Queen Blanche won much sympathy for her cruel plight, no one was able to rescue her. Eight years later, Pedro arranged for her death.

How was Blanche murdered? One story relates that Blanche was poisoned; another claims that Pedro sent a crossbowman to assassinate her. In either case, the queen’s reign was over. At the time of her demise, Blanche was twenty-two years old and had been trapped in that tower for more than a third of her life.

As for Pedro the Cruel, his end reflected the violence of his life. After reigning acrimoniously for twenty years, he was beheaded by one of his illegitimate half brothers.


Truth and advertising aren’t always strangers.

Joan I of Naples


pousal murder, aka mariticide, wasn’t just for morally corrupt kings. By the time Blanche had been sentenced to death by wedlock, her distant cousin Joan had already bumped off her starter husband to better claim the throne of Naples. It was an ignominious start to a reign that would ultimately include exile, plague, and even a brothel.

The rule of Queen Joan initially held great promise—both Boccaccio and Petrarch praised her beauty, intelligence, and politesse. Joan was born in Anjou in 1328 bearing an illustrious pedigree: She was the niece of Phillip VI, the king of France, and the granddaughter of the king of Naples, better known as Robert the Wise. Robert made the girl his sole heir when her father died soon after her birth. To keep it in the family, Joan was betrothed at seven to her second cousin Andrew, a six-year-old Hungarian prince.

Nine years later on his deathbed, Robert the Wise bequeathed the throne of Naples to Andrew, a move that turned out not to be so wise. In doing so, he seriously misread the desires of the populace, who rioted to make Joan their monarch. Voltaire wrote that Andrew “disgusted the Neapolitans by his gross manners, intemperance, and drunkenness.” Within two years’ time, the king was garroted with a silk cord in the palace.

Joan was accused of her husband’s murder. One account claimed that Joan overheard the murder but did not call for help or exhibit distress, which was considered damning evidence of her culpability. In his recounting of her trial, Alexandre Dumas wrote, “An angel soiled by crime, she lied like Satan himself….” The queen got off scot-free. Nevertheless, the damage was done—Andrew’s death aroused the ire of his older brother, Louis I of Hungary, which would have fatal repercussions.

As queen, Joan was known for such accomplishments as establishing a large brothel in Avignon for use by the nobility; she was also the countess of Provence by birth. Despite the stench of hellfire lingering about her skirts, Joan tempted fate by marrying another cousin. To gain the pope’s approval for the consanguineous union, Joan sold Avignon to the church, plunging area prostitutes into unemployment.

Papal favor or no, Joan and her new hubby were forced to flee Naples after King Louis sent his army marching in. The couple lived as expats in Provence until the Black Death arrived in Naples, persuading the Hungarians to leave town. Joan’s triumphant return and coronation were celebrated within L’Incoronata, a cathedral built for the occasion and decorated with frescoes by a student of Giotto. Nonetheless, the queen’s crown was unstable—King Louis continued threatening Naples for another three decades.

In 1381, Hungarian forces finally deposed Joan. A year later, karma paid a visit to Joan in prison. She was strangled, suffering the same fate as her first husband.


If you tarry with crime, you may become a victim.


Alexandre Dumas, the nineteenth-century author of such swashbucklers asThe Three Musketeers, purloined the life of Joan for an entry in hisCelebrated Crimesseries. Dumas romanticized the murderous monarch as a beautiful but tortured victim of others’ Machiavellian machinations. Other historical figures presented inCelebrated Crimesincluded Lucretia Borgia—Joan was in good company.

Joan, from a period manuscript.

Maria of Hungary


y kicking Joan off her throne, King Louis of Hungary enlarged his considerable holdings to include Naples. This made a tidy inheritance for his eldest daughter, Maria. Alas, it also encouraged her premature demise.

To be fair, Louis had only the best intentions for Maria. He was an older father—the king was forty-five, a veritable medieval-era geriatric when Maria was born—so he did not dally to settle her future, especially since he had no male heir. Louis betrothed Maria as a child to the teenaged Sigismund of Luxemburg. Sigismund was in line to become the Holy Roman Emperor; the union would settle the long-term tension that sizzled between the two families, hopefully granting Maria a peaceful reign. Louis intended that Maria would rule Hungary with Sigismund’s help. However, the young’un had ambitions of his own. By age thirteen, Sigismund had already been called on the carpet for scheming in foreign lands.

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Maria of Hungary. A damsel in distress.

In 1382, six months after his henchmen had killed Joan, Louis died of natural causes. Queen Maria was only ten, so her mother, Elisabeth of Bosnia, served as her regent. Nonetheless, Maria’s marriage to Sigismund was solemnized in 1385. Elisabeth’s reign was unnaturally truncated—she was strangled in front of her daughter in 1387. Though the murder occurred during a kidnapping by a cartel of rebellious nobles, word on the street was that the assassination was ordered by Sigismund, who didn’t want a mother-in-law to interfere with his quest for power.

Maria was appropriately freaked. Afterward, the unhappy couple led separate lives with separate courts. Maria allowed Sigismund to rule as he wished.

A decade later, Maria died after a suspicious riding accident while heavily pregnant—take a guess whom most people believed ordered the hit. Since the queen was estranged from her husband, one wonders if Sigismund was the father. Because Maria conveniently died before giving birth, there was no surviving issue to complicate Sigismund’s one-man rule.

The crown Sigismund won at Maria’s expense brought him more trouble as the decades passed. The king by coup ruled Hungary for fifty very long years, most of which were filled with cheerless fighting, dynastic conspiracies, and copious bloodshed. By dint of survival, Sigismund expanded his powers to become king of Romans and Bohemia and, finally, Holy Roman Emperor in 1433. Four years later, Sigismund met his judgment day at the advanced age of sixty-nine.


Becoming the Not So Holy Emperor


Unlike a king, the Holy Roman Emperor was elected. Nor was he holy, though he did have to vow to protect the faith. Before being crowned by the pope, each emperor first served as king of Romans.


Be wary of others’ plansand the role you may play in them.

End-of-Chapter Quiz


What We Have Learned So Far

Just your basic Black Death.

1. Which of the following were a danger to medieval queens?

         a. The bubonic plague, aka the Black Death.

         b. Scary husbands, like that guy inSleeping with the Enemy.

         c. Getting knocked up.

         d. God, Country, and the Crusades.


2. Theodora of Trebizond ended her reign:

         a. Dangling from the gallows.

         b. Tying the knot with Christ.

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         c. Light of heart but heavy with memories.

         d. With more regrets than there are stars in the night sky.


3. What was Oghul Ghaimish’s claim to the Mongol Empire throne?

         a. She was regent for her unborn child.

         b. She completed the Mongolian leadership training course.

         c. She was succeeding her hubby, who was the previous Great Khan.

         d. She had chutzpah, baby.


4. Why was Blanche of Bourbon’s husband, Pedro, so cruel?

         a. He was overcompensating for his insecurities.

         b. He found Blanche less than enchanting.

         c. He was anticipating the marquis de Sade.

         d. His parents sent him to military school instead of pottery camp.


5. What did Joan of Naples achieve during her reign?

         a. She invented Neapolitan ice cream.

         b. She got away with royal perjury.

         c. She founded a state-supported brothel in Avignon.

         d. She lobbied for the public acceptance of mariticide.

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