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The Humiliation of Emperor Valerian

8 strangest deaths of history's ancient rulers

Image: Pen and ink drawing of Valerian being trampled before he was executed | Public Domain

The kings and queens of ancient history typically enjoyed all the trappings of great power and wealth. But it was a dangerous job. Not many of these sovereigns of antiquity died peacefully in their beds at a grand old age. Many were either slain in battle or brutally assassinated. There were some, however, who perished in much stranger and more uncommon ways.

Here we look at eight of the weirdest deaths of rulers of the ancient world.

1. Suffocated by a pile of clothes – Draco, Ancient Greece

The English term ‘Draconian’, describing a severe law or rule, comes from Draco, the famous 7th century BC Athenian statesman.

Draco was asked by the ruling classes of Athens to draw up a set of laws, but even they didn’t expect his criminal codes to be so fierce. Draco punished virtually every offence with death – you could even be executed for stealing a cabbage.

Draco was still quite popular with the masses, though. While making an appearance on stage at a theatre, the excited crowd chose to display their approval in the traditional Greek way – they showered him with items of clothing. This show of affection was, according to legend, the death of him, as so many garments piled on top of him that he suffocated.

2. Drowned in a toilet – Jing of Jin, Ancient China

In the summer of 581 BC, a shaman warned Duke Jing, ruler of Jin from 599 to 581 BC, that he wouldn’t live to enjoy the coming harvest. Later that summer, as he was preparing to eat the new wheat, the duke had the shaman executed, telling him his prophecy of death was clearly wrong. Just as the duke was about to eat the wheat, he felt the urge to visit the toilet.

There in the royal WC, the duke fell through the hole and into the latrine pit below, where he drowned. One of the duke’s servants bravely dived into the cesspool to retrieve his master’s body. The thanks the slave got was to be murdered and buried with his dead boss to continue serving him in the afterlife.

3. Suffocated in ash - Sogdianus, Ancient Persia

King Sogdianus was the ruler of the Achaemenid Empire from 424 to 423 BC. The king’s half-brother, Ochus, believed that the throne was rightfully his and convinced Sogdianus to abdicate. Ochus promised Sogdianus that once he relinquished his power, he would allow him to live out his days peacefully. Sogdianus agreed and stepped down, at which point Ochus took over the role and quickly sentenced his half-brother to death.

A tall, brick chamber was stuffed with cold ash and Sogdianus was sealed inside, the mass of grey cinders coming up to his waist. He then spent several agonising hours standing inside the small tower, breathing in the powdery particles until he slowly succumbed and died.

This method of ancient Persian capital punishment, considered an especially terrible way to die, was typically reserved for those guilty of high treason.

4. Died while showing off - Wu of Qin, Ancient China

The formidable state of Qin was used to being ruled by strongmen and in the case of King Wu, who ascended the throne in 310 BC, this was true in more ways than one.

The growing influence of his kingdom and his success in battle must have fed the ego of the muscle-bound king, who was said to enjoy weightlifting competitions with his chums at court. It seems the king thought there was nothing he couldn’t lift.

One day, the king challenged a famous bodybuilder to a cauldron-lifting challenge. The contender had no trouble holding the heavy bronze pot aloft, but when the king held up the massive object it all went horribly wrong. The king’s leg buckled under the pressure, breaking his shinbone and kneecap. King Wu never recovered from this gruesome accident, and one night, not long afterward, blood started to come out of his eyes, at which point Wu died.

Those in power believed that the accident was the king’s cause of death, as after the monarch’s passing his unfortunate rival in the cauldron-lifting challenge, Meng Yue, was executed – along with his whole family.

5. Lured into a fiery pit – Susima, Ancient India

In the third century BC the Indian subcontinent was dominated by the mighty Maurya Empire. One of its most famous rulers was Ashoka the Great, who was in power from around 268 to 232 BC. Ashoka is esteemed as a legendary champion of the Buddhist faith, but he is also remembered for his acts of monumental violence. Once, he was said to have personally decapitated 500 of his ministers after they’d argued with him.

Susima, crown prince of the realm, travelled to topple Ashoka after Ashoka had sneakily won the crown. Ashoka, knowing his rival was en route, set a devious and deadly trap. Outside the gates of the capital Pataliputra, men loyal to Ashoka set up a ‘mechanical elephant’ and on this put a fake likeness of the king to draw Susima into a battle. Just in front of the ‘elephant’ a huge ditch had been dug and filled with hot embers. Susima bounded up, fell into the trap, and died a slow, painful death in the red-hot pit.

6. Committed suicide with a snake - Cleopatra, Ancient Egypt

One of the most famous royal deaths from the ancient world is that of Cleopatra VII, Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC. According to popular tradition, she killed herself by allowing an asp (a small viper) or a cobra to bite her, along with her two handmaidens.

Shakespeare helped to popularise Cleopatra, her tempestuous affair with Roman Mark Antony, and her dramatic suicide. But modern historians say that it cannot be said for certain how she died.

7. Forced to swallow molten gold – Valerian, Ancient Rome

According to ancient sources, Valerian, the Roman emperor from 253 to 260 AD, ended his days as a prisoner of the Persian king, Shapur I. This was in the aftermath of the Battle of Edessa in the spring of 260, when the Persians inflicted a crushing defeat on Valerian and his force of 70,000 Romans in modern-day Turkey.

Some accounts maintain that Valerian was regularly humiliated by King Shapur, such as being used as a human footstool and being kept in a cage.

It is said that Valerian was executed by Shapur after offering to buy his way out of captivity. One version says that Valerian died by having molten gold poured down his throat and that his corpse was then skinned, stuffed with straw, and mounted as a trophy in a big Persian temple.

8. Died from shouting – Valentinian, Ancient Rome

Valentinian I, Roman emperor from 364 to 375 AD, was a career soldier who was proclaimed emperor by the commanders of the army after emperor Jovian died.

In November 375, Valentinian was in the Roman province of Valeria, in modern-day Hungary, fighting with a Germanic people called the Quadi. On 17th November, the Quadi sent a delegation to meet the emperor. The delegates seemed to issue a veiled threat to Valentinian, advising him that the building of Roman forts in Quadi lands had led to war and that the safety of Romans from Quadi attacks could not be guaranteed.

A contemporary historian described the emperor erupting into a ‘mighty fit of wrath’, screaming and ranting at the envoys. Moments later the Roman ruler was ‘speechless and suffocating, and his face tinged with a fiery flush’ – the emperor had a fatal stroke.