If you think about holding a position of power, being insane is almost a job requirement. Few of us would thrive under such circumstances, and most would be incompetent at best. But as history tells us, incompetence is not actually the worst character trait one can have.
Guys like Nero and Caligula usually are the first to come to mind when we think about despotic, decadent and downright crazy Roman emperors. But Elagabalus might have them beat. He took to the throne as a sexually-confused 14-year old and quickly realized that this allowed him to engage in all the perversities he could think of. He regularly enjoyed having sex with countless strangers, both men and women, which he usually did by disguising himself as a whore and going to brothels.
Elagabalus held lavish feasts where he fed on only the most exotic food in the world, which naturally included brains. Despite the public’s disgust at the emperor’s actions, it was his religious acts that cost him his life. Elagabalus thought it would be a good idea to replace Jupiter with a Syrian sun god named El-Gabal. Eventually, everyone in Rome wanted him dead, including his own praetorian guard who slayed the emperor at the young age of 18.
Thanks to Russell Crowe, Commodus’ name and reputation as the ultimate evil Roman emperor is rising. However, it’s pretty safe to say that the real Commodus was much more twisted than “Gladiator” let on. Like Elagabalus, Commodus wasn’t shy about indulging in his deepest desires, but his were much bloodier in nature.
Commodus fancied himself as the incarnation of Hercules and liked to show off his fighting prowess in the arena. He fought exotic animals…from the safety of an elevated tower, of course. He also fought injured soldiers, those with disabilities and amputees. Unsurprisingly, Commodus always won his fights and charged the city of Rome an exorbitant fee for the “pleasure” of watching him in action.
Ibrahim’s early life was pretty traumatic. He was kept in close confinement while his big brother, Murad IV, ruled the Ottoman Empire. Believing that his bloodline was cursed with madness, Murad killed his brothers in order to see it disappear forever. It was only at his mother’s insistence that he spared Ibrahim’s life.
When Murad died and Ibrahim came to power, he was eager to indulge in life’s pleasures. He took hundreds of concubines, letting his Grand Vizier handle the boring stuff like running an empire. Ibrahim lived a very extravagant lifestyle that nearly bankrupted—and ruined–the empire. He eventually entered into a war with Venice without the funds for an actual army. As you might have guessed, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and some of his supporters took one for the team and had Ibrahim executed.
Charles VI of France
Whether or not Charles VI was mentally ill is not up for debate. The question is actually what illness he suffered from. Originally, Charles was a competent and well-liked ruler, earning the nickname Charles the Beloved. However, by the end of his reign that name would have changed to Charles the Mad.
His “peculiarities” started in his 20s and only got worse with time. He would often suffer selective bouts of amnesia, forgetting who his wife and children were—even forgetting his own identity. Charles became paranoid, refusing to bathe or change clothes for months at a time. Most notably, he suffered from a condition known as glass delusion. Charles thought he was made of glass and took precautions so that he would not shatter.
Joanna of Castile
It’s pretty safe to say that if your nickname is “the Mad” then you deserve a spot on this list. Juana la Loca, as she became known, was Queen of Castile and wife of Philip I. Despite being an arranged marriage, Joanna fell deeply in love with Philip (he was named Philip the Handsome, after all) and didn’t take his sudden death well. In fact, it’s reported that she would often have his tomb reopened so she could go and spend some time with her husband, caressing and kissing his corpse. Modern historians think that Joanna suffered from schizophrenia or melancholia, a mental illness passed on through her mother’s bloodline.