Stories of the Little Emperors: Some Babies Shake Up Kingdoms

Some babies shake rattles and others shake up kingdoms. We hear many stories of the unhappy lives and ends of child rulers. Most recently, in 1908, Puyi became the last emperor of China at only two years old. As the crowning ceremony began, the frightened little emperor had to be carried to the throne by his father as he cried, kicked, and clawed – desperately trying to escape. When he was no more than six years old, a revolution erupted and the dynasty crumbled. Pomare III of Tahiti did not fare much better. He became the king of Tahiti at only 17 months old with his mother acting as his regent. He died at the age of five and was succeeded by his 14 year old sister. 

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Pōmare III, drawing from montage by Madame Sophia Hoare, 1885.

However, there have been child emperors who became more than mere figureheads while their regents deal with the actual government. These children came to their positions before reaching the age of majority which, until modern times, seems to have been around 15 years old for a boy and 12 years old for a girl. Some young emperors even grew into their roles and lived long lives. However, the story of a child emperor is also the story of their guardians who made decisions and rulings that the child would not be able to make. These guardians would be monarchs in all but name until the child is of age to rule themselves. However, they quickly learned that the business of running an empire was not easy even for experienced adults, and their ability to watching over the future rulers of their realms play a big part on their own future, as well as the future of their empires.

Time is a child playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child - Heraclitus

The Boy Priest and Two Empresses of Rome

In 218 CE, the Roman Emperor Macrinus was becoming increasingly unpopular due to his many broken promises to the military. One day, a fourteen-year-old boy priest was sneaked into the camp of the Third Gallic Legion in Syria and was proclaimed emperor.  Macrinus was executed shortly after this.

The boy’s name was Varius Aviatus Bassianus. Born a son of a former senator under the rule of emperor Caracalla. By the time he assumed the title of Emperor, he was already the hereditary high priest at the Temple of the Sun for the Syrian sun-god Elagabal. Although the boy’s name was changed to Marcus Aurellius Antoninus Augustus, he is known in history as emperor Elagabalus.

File:Bust of Elagabalus - Palazzo Nuovo - Musei Capitolini - Rome 2016 (2).jpg
Bust of Elagabalus – Palazzo Nuovo – Musei Capitolini

Elagabalus was not chosen at random for this position. Macrinus had been instrumental in Caracalla’s assassination and commanded that Julia Domna, Caracalla’s mother, leave Antioch. After Julia Domna starved herself to death, her sister Julia Maesa and two nieces, Julia Soaemis (mother of Elagabalus) and Julia Mamaea, swore revenge. The powerful women exercised their influences and had commander Comazon smuggled the boy into the Third Legion’s camp to be declared emperor. His mother’s (and grandmother’s) wealth and Elagabalus’ remarkable resemblance to Caracalla was enough to convince everyone that he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla – a belief skillfully planted by his mother and grandmother.

The two women employed Gannys, rumoured either to be Julia Maesa’s eunuch or Julia’s Soaemis’ lover, who assumed command of the army which marched against Macrinus. The two forces met outside Antioch and Gannys emerged victorious. Macrinus was executed shortly after and Elagabalus was thereafter recognized as ruler throughout the empire. With the elevation of Elagabalus, Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemis were each proclaimed Augusta, or empress. There was no doubt with whom the real power resided as Gannys was later conveniently executed at Nicomedia.

You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance - Franklin P. Jones

Upon the new emperor’s arrival in Rome, the day-to-day activities of government were left to Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemis. Both ladies were given permission to attend sessions of the Senate – having them as regent to the young emperor seemed to be acceptable at the time. However, Rome was aghast when they learned that, as a high priest, Elagabalus made plans to replace the traditional religion of Rome with the worship of Elagabal. To cement his intentions Elagabalus had a cult symbol of his religion brought from Syria and installed on the Palatine Hill. He also built a new temple, the Elagabalium, to honor Elagabal. In his Roman History, Cassius Dio, who called the emperor the “False Antoninus,” wrote, “The offense consisted, not in his introducing a foreign god into Rome or in his exalting in very strange ways, but in his placing him even before Jupiter himself and causing himself to be voted his priest. Furthermore, he was frequently seen even in public clad in the barbaric dress which the Syrian priests use, and this had as much to do as anything with his receiving the nickname of ‘The Assyrian.’”

Altar of the god Elagabalus, dedicated by Gaius Iulius Avitus Alexianus
Altar of the god Elagabalus, dedicated by Gaius Iulius Avitus Alexianus

To improve his relationship with the people of Rome and take attention away from the new religion, Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemis encouraged Elagabalus to marry into a Roman aristocratic family. He married Julia Paula before divorcing her to marry Aquilia Severa, a Vestal Virgin, thereby creating another scandal as Cassius Dio reported that Elagabalus married her “…[he said] in order that godlike children might spring from me.” To prevent further controversy, the marriage was quickly dissolved a year later.

Although he went on to marry three more times, Elagabalus generally demonstrated little interest in any of his wives as he preferred the company of men. Rumors were rampant that he wandered the imperial palace as well as the streets of Rome at night dressed as a woman. Further, he is said to have promised his physicians large sums of money if they would find away to operate on him and turn him into a woman. Although the Romans were quite used to having emperors who liked to wear make up and enjoyed the company of young boys, Elagabalus went too far in taking a slave named Hierocles as his  ‘husband’ and offering himself naked to passers by in the palace, even prostituting himself in the taverns and brothels of Rome – often arranging to be caught by Hierocles, who would then be expected to punish him for his behavior with a severe beating.

A child's education should begin at least 100 years before he was born. Oliver W. Holmes Sr.

However, Elagabalus’ sexual activities were not the dividing factor between his two guardians. His mother, Julia Soaemias, encouraged Elagabalus’ religious activities as his grandmother, Julia Maesa, did not. Julia Maesa then decided  that the young emperor and Julia Soaemias were out of control and needed to be replaced. She therefore turned to her younger daughter Julia Mamaea, who had a thirteen year old son, Alexanus, who later became emperor Alexander Severus.

Seeing his cousin as a serious rival, Elagabalus began planning Alexanus’ execution and the family became divided – Julia Soaemis stood behind her son, Elagabalus, while Julia Maesa and her new ally, Julia Mamaea, supported Alexanus. Knowing his grandmother’s partiality towards his cousin, Elagabalus ordered the execution of Alexanus in 222 CE. However, the Praetorian Guard refused, having already decided to support Alexanus. Eighteen-year-old Elagabalus and his mother were executed, beheaded, dragged through the streets of Rome and dumped into the Tiber. Upon hearing the news of Elagabalus’ death, the Senate condemned his memory and named Alexanus the new emperor who, like his predecessor, would serve with the help of his mother and grandmother until 235 CE when he too would be assassinated.

Born King, Born Warrior: Story of Shapur II of the Sassanid Empire

King Hormizd II was meant to have been succeeded by his son, Adur Narseh who, after a brief reign which lasted few months, was killed by the nobles of the empire in favor of the unborn child of  Hormizd II’s wife Ifra Hormizd. Legend has it that in year 309 CE, Persian nobles placed a crown upon the belly of the widow. Inside was history’s first fetal ruler: Shapur II. The in utero ruler became the ninth leader of the Sassanid Empire, a powerful Persian kingdom covering modern Iran.

File:Plate with Shapur II in hunting scene, view 1, Iran, Sasanian period, 4th century AD, silver and gilt - Arthur M. Sackler Gallery - DSC05874.JPG
Plate with Shapur II in hunting scene, view 1, Iran, Sasanian period, 4th century AD, silver and gilt 

However, another version of the event says that it is unlikely that Shapur was crowned as king while still in his mother’s womb for the very simple reason that the nobles could not have known of his gender at that time. It was further stated that Shapur was born 14 days after his father’s death, and that the nobles killed Adur Narseh and crowned Shapur II in order to gain greater control of the empire, which they were able to do until Shapur II reached his majority at the age of 16.

It is unfortunate that there are not many details regarding the nobles who acted as Shapur II’s regents. However, we do know that during the childhood of Shapur II, Arabian nomads made several incursions into the Sasanian homeland of Pars, where they raided Gor and its surroundings, as well as making incursions into Meshan and Mazun.

The nobles may not have done the best job in protecting their empire. However, they did well in preparing their future protector  as, at the age of 16, Shapur II led an expedition against the Arabs; primarily campaigning against the Ayad tribe in Asoristan and crossed the Persian Gulf, reaching al-Khatt, a region between present-day Bahrain and Qatar. He then attacked the Banu Tamim  in the Al Hajar Mountains. He reportedly killed a large number of the population and destroyed their water supplies by stopping their wells with sand.

How is it that little children are so intelligent and men so stupid? It must be education that does it. - Alexandre Dumas

Shapur II went on to rule for 70 years, during which he ousted Christianity from the Middle East. He died  in 379 CE and was succeeded by his brother Ardashir II. By Shapur’s death the Sasanian Empire was stronger than ever before, considerably larger than when he came to the throne, the eastern and western enemies were pacified and Persia had gained control over Armenia. However, the death of Shapur II, the boy king raised by the nobles of his kingdom, marked the start of a 125-year-long conflict between the nobility and the kings, who both struggled for power over Iran.

The Grand Empress Dowager in China

The Kangxi Emperor was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty in China. His reign of 61 years makes him the longest reigning emperor in Chinese history. However, as he ascended the throne at the age of seven, actual power was held for six years by four regents  and his grandmother, the Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang.

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Young Kangxi Emperor, age about 20.

Born 1654 to the Shunzhi Emperor and Empress Xiaokangzhang in Jingren Palace, the Forbidden City, Beijing, the Kangxi Emperor was enthroned at the age of seven in 1661. Before the Kangxi Emperor came to the throne, his grandmother, who vowed to raise him, had appointed four powerful men Sonin, Suksaha, Ebilum, and Oboi as regent to the young emperor. This period of regency was known as the “Four Regents period”.

In the initial stage of the regency, the four regents oversaw the government together and provided assistance to each other in accordance to the Grand Empress Dowager’s wishes. They continued the war against resistance forces loyal to the Ming dynasty. In 1662, the last ruler of the Southern Ming dynasty, the Yongli Emperor, was killed by Wu Sangui by the orders of the four regents. Within the next two years, the Qing government had suppressed all anti-Qing armed forces within China. The Qing dynasty then moved on to re-stabilize its society and economy which had been badly devastated by war. The four regents therefore devised policies to aid in the recovery and development of China. During the early years of the regency, at least, the four regents managed to maintain a relatively peaceful and efficient working relationship.

The old Kangxi Emperor

The dynamics of the regency began to shift as Sonin’s health gradually deteriorated due to old age. As Sonin took more time away to recuperate, Oboi started monopolizing state power by making decisions without consulting the other regents. He took advantage of Ebilum’s indecisiveness and sidelined Suksaha during discussions.

By 1667, when Sonin realized that he was dying, he attempted to restore balance to the regency and neutralize Oboi’s rapidly expanding power clique. Sonin wrote a memorial to the 14-year-old Kangxi Emperor, requesting that the emperor assume his rule officially ahead of his coming of age. The Kangxi Emperor thus formally took over the reins of power in a ceremony a month after Sonin’s death. Following this, the young emperor issued an imperial decree to reduce the power of the three surviving regents to that of assisting ministers. He then had Oboi arrested with the help of his grandmother Grand Dowager Empress Xozhuang and began taking personal control of the empire. The Grand Empress Dowager influenced him greatly and the emperor looked after her  himself in the months leading up to her death in 1688.

The Kangxi Emperor’s long reign brought about long-term stability and relative wealth after years of war and chaos. He initiated the period known as the “Prosperous Era of Kangxi and Qianlong” or “High Qing”, which lasted for several generations after his death.

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