10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers

Khalid Elhassan - April 7, 2018

The term “kingmaker” was first applied during the Wars of the Roses to Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who was nicknamed “Warwick the Kingmaker” for his machinations in crowning and deposing monarchs. The term has since come to be used in describing individuals or groups who play a huge role in royal or political successions, in which they are not candidates themselves.

Following are ten of history’s greatest kingmakers.

The Praetorian Guard Deposed and Proclaimed Emperors, and Auctioned the Imperial Throne

In the 1st century BC, Augustus did away with the increasingly dysfunctional and unworkable Roman Republic, replacing it with the Roman Empire, with himself at its head. To protect himself, Augustus created a special military unit that came to be known as the Praetorian Guard. Over the next three centuries, its members would act as the emperor’s bodyguards, a secret police, and imperial enforcers and executioners.

Augustus reorganized the Roman army to permanently station the legions on the empire’s frontiers, leaving the Praetorians as the only organized military force in Rome and Italy. Augustus kept the Praetorians in check, but after his death in 14 AD, the rot set in, as the guards came to realize the advantages of their swords’ proximity to the emperor’s throat.

In 41 AD, a Praetorian tribune had enough of repeated insults from the emperor Caligula, and had him hacked to pieces. The Senate declared a restoration of the Republic, but the Praetorians had other ideas: while pillaging the imperial palace, they came upon Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding behind a curtain. Claudius, an unprepossessing figure with a limp and stutter, had only survived the previous emperors’ paranoid slaughter of their relatives because he was deemed feebleminded. On the spur of the moment, the Praetorians dragged the terrified Claudius from his hiding place, and as he begged for mercy, proclaimed him emperor. A relieved Claudius rewarded them with a bonus equivalent to 5 years’ salary, setting a precedent that all new emperors were expected to follow – or else.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Praetorian Guards, from a decor fragment dating to 51 – 52 AD. Wikimedia

In the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 AD, the Praetorians were persuaded to abandon the emperor Nero after a supporter of Galba, a rebellious general, offered a bribe of 7500 denarius per man. Galba replaced Nero on the throne, but when told of his supporter’s promise, he balked, quipping “It is my habit to recruit soldiers, not bribe them“. The Praetorians threw their support to his rival, Otho, and murdered Galba.

Otho was defeated by yet another contender, Vitellius, who cashiered the Praetorians after executing their centurions. So the ex Praetorians joined Vespasian, another contender, defeated Vitellius, and established the Flavian Dynasty. The cashiered Praetorians got their jobs back. Over the next century, aside from involvement in a plot that murdered the emperor Domitian in 96 AD, the Praetorians behaved themselves.

They relapsed in 192, and assassinated the emperor Commodus. His successor, Pertinax, gave the Praetorians a bonus of 3000 denarii, each, but it did not stop them from murdering him three months later. The Praetorians then committed their most brazen act of kingmaking, by auctioning off the imperial throne to the highest bidder. That was just too much: the army of the Danube proclaimed Septimius Severus emperor. He marched on Rome, seized the city, and fired all the Praetorians, replacing them with men from his own legions.

The new Praetorians were just as bad as the old, however, and in 217 they assassinated Septimius Severus’ son and successor, Caracalla. They followed that up in 222 by murdering the emperor Elagabalus and his mother, tossing their bodies into the Tiber river afterwards. In his place, the Praetorians appointed Elagabalus’ cousin, Severus Alexander.

Little is known about the Praetorians during a chaotic period that came to be known as The Crisis of The Third Century (235 – 284), which saw at least 26 emperors and imperial claimants during a 50 year stretch. The Praetorians murdered at least one emperor during the period: Phillippus II. The Praetorians were finally disbanded in 312 by the emperor Constantine, after they backed his opponent Maxentius and lost.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Chanakya. 4 Remedy

Chanakya Was Instrumental in Founding the Mauryan Empire

Chanakya (flourished 4th century BC) was an Indian philosopher, teacher, and royal advisor. He pioneered the field of political science by penning the Arthashastra, history’s first political treatise on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy. He was also a kingmaker who played an instrumental role in the rise of Chandrugupta and the establishment of his Mauryan Empire.

Chanakya was a Brahmin priest, who had the misfortune of being ugly as sin. One day, a king named Dhana Nanda, disgusted by Chanakya’s appearance, ordered him thrown out of a ceremony. Understandably upset, Chanakya vowed revenge, and set out to find a substitute king. He managed to recruit the king’s own son, Pabbata, and also came across a promising youth, Chandragupta.

With Chandragupta and Pabbata, Chanakya had two potential contenders, so to choose between them, he devised a test. He gave each an amulet, dangling from a thread to be worn around the neck. One day, while Chandragupta was asleep, Chanakya asked Pabbata to remove the amulet from his neck without waking him. Pabbata tried, but failed when Chandragupta woke up. A few days later, while Pabbata was asleep, Chanakya asked Chandragupta if he could remove the amulet without waking him up. Chandragupta solved the problem by chopping off Pabbata’s head. Chanakya had his man.

He spent years instructing Chandragupta on royal duties until he reached adulthood. Chanakya then raised an army and marched against king Dhana Nanda. After an initial setback, kingmaker and would-be king defeated and killed Dhana Nanda. Chanakya then anointed Chandragupta the new king, and remained by his side as chief advisor, while Chandragupta expanded his realm to create the Mauryan Empire. After Chandragupta’s death, Chanakya continued in his role as chief adviser to his son and successor, Bindusara.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Richard Nevile, the Kingmaker. Find a Grave

Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, Was the Original “Kingmaker”

The term “Kingmaker” was coined to refer to Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (1428 – 1471), the wealthiest and most powerful nobleman of his era. He was also a capable military commander during the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family. Warwick began the conflict on the Yorkist side, but then switched his support to the Lancastrians, and his role in deposing two kings earned him the epithet “Warwick the Kingmaker”.

The conflict began when Richard, Duke of York, with backing from the Nevilles, made a bid to seize the crown from his cousin, the mentally incapacitated king Henry VI. However, the Duke of York, along with Warwick’s father, were slain in battle, so the struggle passed on to the next generation of Yorkists, Warwick, and the Duke of York’s son, Edward.

Warwick played a key role in securing victory for the Yorkists, who broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461. Henry VI was deposed and imprisoned, and his place was taken by York’s son, who was crowned as Edward IV. The new king was a formidable warrior and military genius, but had little interest in governance, so Warwick effectively ran England on his behalf.

Things soured when Edward’s impulsive marriage to a commoner ruined years of painstaking negotiations by Warwick for a treaty between England and France, that was to have been sealed by Edward’s marriage to a French princess. Things eventually came to a head in 1470, when Warwick, with the help of king Edward’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, deposed Edward. The Yorkist king was forced to flee England, while the deposed Lancastrian Henry VI was dusted off and restored to the English throne.

Warwick’s triumph was short lived, however: Edward returned to England in 1471, and raised a counter rebellion. At a critical moment, Warwick was betrayed by George, Duke of Clarence, who had a change of heart and defected back to his brother, Edward. The two sides met in the Battle of Barnet in April of 1471, a Lancastrian defeat in which the Kingmaker was killed.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
The Sayyid Brothers. PaGalGuy

The Sayyid Brothers Appointed and Deposed Moghul Emperors at Whim

In the 1710s, two Indian courtiers, the brothers Syed Hassn Ali Khan Bahra and Syed Abdullah Khan, became powerful kingmakers in the Moghul Empire, appointing and deposing emperors as they saw fit. The Sayyid brothers became extremely influential – when they were not outright ruling through puppet emperors – and dominated the Moghul realm until the early 1720s.

They were born into a military family, sons of a general who faithfully served the Emperor Aurangzeb, the Moghul Empire’s last powerful and effective ruler. The Sayyid brothers followed in their father’s footsteps, serving as officers in the Moghul army, and growing steadily more influential in the Moghul court. However, they quit the court in high dudgeon over a slight by an imperial prince, Jahandar.

When Jahandar became emperor in 1712, the Sayyid brothers remembered the slight, and paid him back by backing one of his nephews, Farrukhsiyar, who rose up in rebellion against his uncle. With the Sayyid brothers’ help, Farrukhsiyar defeated his uncle in 1713, and became Moghul emperor. Jahandar was captured, imprisoned, and murdered soon thereafter.

Farrukhsiyar rewarded the Sayyid brothers by appointing them to high ranking positions in his court and government. However, the emperor’s gratitude began to wane within a few years, and when he began favoring other courtiers over the Sayyids, the relationship soured. Open warfare finally erupted in 1719, and ended with the brothers deposing Farrukhsiyar, whom they imprisoned, blinded, and murdered.

The brothers replaced Farrukhsiyar with Rafi ad Darajat, a grandson of a previous emperor. The Sayyids then proceeded to rule the realm, with the new emperor acting as their puppet. It was a short lived puppet show, however, and ended with the new emperor’s death within a few months. So the Sayyids elevated his younger brother, Rafi ad Dawla, to the throne, and continued ruling through their new puppet emperor.

However, just like his brother, Rafi ad Dawla died within a few months of ascending the throne. So the Sayyids picked a new emperor, the third appointed by the brothers in 1719, Muhammad Shah. Unfortunately for the Sayyids, the new emperor was made of sterner stuff than his predecessors, and refused to act as anybody’s puppet. Muhammad Shah had Hassan Ali assassinated in 1720, then defeated his brother Abdullah in 1722, after the latter gathered an army to avenge his sibling. Sayyid Abdullah was captured, and executed in October of 1722, finally ending the brothers’ era of kingmaking.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Godwine’s Death. Hampshire History

Godwin, Earl of Wessex, Anglo-Saxon England’s Kingmaker

Godwin of Wessex (1001 – 1053) was a nobleman who dominated England in the first half of the 11th century. Although an Anglo Saxon, Godwin won the favor of the Danish King Canute after the latter conquered England in 1016, and the new king made him Earl of Wessex in 1018. Godwin’s kingmaker career commenced with Canute’s death in 1035.

The Danish king’s demise triggered a succession crisis, as his son Harold Harefoot fought for the English throne against Alfred the Aethling, son of Canute’s predecessor, Ethelred the Unready. Godwin made his first king by securing the throne for Harold. He accomplished that by feigning loyalty to Alfred, and luring him to London, where he was seized in an ambush. Alfred was then blinded, and died in captivity soon thereafter.

However, Harold died in 1040, and his heir was his half brother Harthacanut, King of Denmark. That was awkward for Godwin, because Harthacanut also happened to be half brother of that same Alfred whom Godwin had betrayed. The Earl of Wessex managed to worm his way out of Harthacanut’s vengeance by claiming to have acted under Harold’s orders. Between Godwin’s protestations, his lavish gifts, and offers to smooth his path to the English throne, Harthacanut let the Earl of Wessex off the hook, and limited his revenge to digging up Harold’s corpse and beheading it.

Harthacnut’s death in 1042 triggered yet another succession crisis, this one between King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, Alfred’s brother and the last surviving son of Aethelred the Unready. Godwin played kingmaker once more, and secured the throne for Edward, thus restoring to England the royal house of Wessex, and Saxon rule, after decades of Danish domination.

Godwin became the most powerful nobleman in the court of Edward the Confessor, but kingmaker and king fell out in 1051, over Edward’s increasing reliance on Norman advisors – the king having grown up in Normandy. Godwin was stripped of his earldom and banished, but he returned with an army, raised a rebellion, and set Edward the Confessor right. The king was forced to restore Godwin’s earldom, and the kingmaker became the most powerful man in the kingdom, until his sudden death in 1053. His son Harold Godwinson succeeded him as England’s most powerful figure, and was crowned king after Edward’s death in 1066, reigning until his defeat by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings later that year.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
A bronze coin with Ricimer’s monogram. Medievalists

Ricimer Made and Unmade Roman Emperors at Will

Flavius Ricimer (died 472) was a Romanized German general who acted as kingmaker in the Western Roman Empire from 456 until his death in 472, and effectively ruled the Western half of the Empire. He was born into Germanic tribal royalty, his father a king of the Suebi tribe, while his mother was a daughter of the king of the Visigoths.

He joined the Roman military, and served under Flavius Aetius, the Western Roman Empire’s last great general, who saved Western Europe from Attila the Hun. After Aetius’ murder in 454 by an ungrateful Roman emperor, Valentinian III, a period of chaos followed. Valentinian was murdered in turn, his successor was torn to pieces by a street mob, and Rome was sacked by Vandals in 455.

A Visigothic king then proclaimed the Roman military commander in Gaul, Avitus, emperor. The newly enthroned Avitus promoted Ricimer to a high military rank, and when he demonstrated his ability by defeating the Vandals in 456, Avitus promoted him to the empire’s second highest military rank. Ricimer however used his military position to plot with a friend, Marjorian, to depose Avitus in 457.

The Eastern Roman Emperor, Leo I, then appointed Ricimer the Western Roman Empire’s magister militum – the late Roman Empire’s highest military command position. Ricimer would have liked to become Western Roman emperor himself, but that was not an option, because he was a Germanic barbarian, and because he was considered a heretic.

Ricimer was Christian, but he was an Arian Christian, and that was the wrong kind of Christian, far as the Roman Empire was concerned. By the end of the 4th century, the Roman Empire had officially become a Christian empire. While cementing its hold in the empire, Christianity was also spreading to the Germanic tribes, both within and without Roman frontiers. However, those tribes were converted by missionaries from the Arian sect, whose teachings were deemed heretical by the orthodox Christians of the Roman Empire. Ricimer’s Arianism was thus a serious strike against him, which acted as a glass ceiling, capping his imperial prospects.

In the political and religious environment of the day, even a powerful Arian such as Ricimer, who could make and unmake emperors, nonetheless lacked the necessary religious legitimacy to become an emperor. Since he could not become an emperor, Ricimer set out to become an emperor maker, instead. He decided to use his friend Marjorian as a puppet, and him declared emperor in 457.

Marjorian turned out to be an unsuitable puppet, however, by proving himself a capable ruler and military commander. He subdued the Visigoths in Gaul, and brought the province back under imperial control. He then turned his gaze to Hispania, and marched against the Vandals there, leaving Ricimer behind in Italy. The Vandals defeated Marjorian, however, and while he was gone, Ricimer convinced the Roman Senate to depose him.

When Marjorian returned to Italy, Ricimer had him arrested, tortured, and executed. In his place, Ricimer appointed Libius Severus as Western emperor in 461. He ruled through Severus until the latter’s death in 465, after which the Western Roman throne remained vacant for 2 years. Then Ricimer acquiesced to the Eastern Emperor Leo I’s appointment of Anthemius as Western emperor, in exchange for Ricimer’s marrying Anthemius’ daughter.

However, after Anthemius led a major expedition against the Vandals to catastrophic defeat, Ricimer turned on his father in law, and besieged him in Rome. When the city fell, Anthemius tried to flee, disguised as a beggar, but was caught and beheaded in 472. Ricimer then replaced him with Olybrius, an envoy sent by the Eastern emperor to try and mediate between Ricimer and Anthemius. Ricimer did not enjoy his new puppet for long however, and died only six weeks later from a hemorrhage.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby. Luminarium

Thomas Stanley Became a Kingmaker in an Afternoon

Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504), pulled off one of history’s most momentous acts of kingmaking during the course of a single afternoon. He was a powerful peer who ran his extensive landholdings in northwest England as if they were an independent realm. His support was thus courted by both the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the Plantagenet dynasty during the Wars of Roses.

The Yorkist King Edward IV had died in 1483, having named his brother Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s 12 year old son and successor, and his younger brother. However, Richard declared Edward’s sons illegitimate, and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London, where they disappeared and were likely murdered. He then had himself crowned as king Richard III.

Richard was challenged for the crown by Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line, who landed in England in 1485, after years of exile. Richard gathered his forces, which included a large contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist loyalist and supporter, and marched out to meet his challenger.

Stanley was conflicted: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that betrayal with lands and estates, and appointments to powerful positions in the royal government. He was thus indebted to the Yorkists. However, he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so he was the challenger’s stepfather.

Stuck between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of peace and tranquility at home, Stanley decided to play both sides, and secretly contacted his stepson to explore defection. King Richard got wind of that, however, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for his father’s good behavior and insurance against treachery. He then ordered the Earl to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did.

The rivals met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, but Stanley was still undecided. So he kept his contingent to one side of field, while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians. The Earl coolly replied: “Sire, I have other sons“.

Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and before long it was too late. As the afternoon wore on, Stanley made up his mind that king Richard was losing the battle, so he ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor, and against Richard III, who launched a desperate attack seeking to reach and cut down his rival, only to get cut down himself.

Following Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, henceforth Henry VII. Stanley’s stepson and new king of England brought the Plantagenet dynasty to an end after centuries of rule, and replaced it with his own Tudor dynasty. As to Stanley, treachery paid well, and was generously rewarded for his betrayal of Richard.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Carl Otto Morner. Kunglia Samfundet

Swedish Envoy Carl Otto Morner Picked Sweden’s King on His Own Initiative, and Without Any Authorization

In 1810, Sweden had a serious problem: an aging, ailing, and heirless king, Charles XIII, who might drop dead at any moment. The king’s heirless demise could lead to a succession crisis that would plunge the country into civil war. It was a particularly vulnerable moment for Sweden, a once powerful kingdom but now a second rate power, whose survival depended on playing off Europe’s major powers.

In 1810, there were only three major powers in Europe far as Sweden was concerned: Russia, France, and Britain. Russia coveted Sweden. Napoleon’s France was allied with Russia. Britain was too committed to fighting the French in Spain to help Sweden. Thus, internal Swedish strife could give neighboring Russia a pretext to invade in order to “restore order”. Once in Sweden, the Russians would install a puppet king, and turn Sweden into a Russian vassal state.

Enter Baron Carl Otto Morner (1781 – 1868), a Swedish courtier and member of the Riksdag – Sweden’s legislative body. On his own initiative, and without authorization from the Swedish government, Baron Morner went ahead and offered the Swedish crown to one of Napoleon’s Marshalls, Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763 – 1844).

Bernadotte had risen rapidly through the ranks during the French Revolution, going from sub-lieutenant in 1792 to brigadier general in 1794. Campaigning in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy, he developed a reputation as a disciplinarian who kept his troops under tight control. In 1796, he saved the French army in Germany from destruction following its defeat by the Austrians, and ensured its safe retreat across the Rhine.

Bernadotte first met Napoleon in 1797, and the two developed a friendship, but it eventually ended because of rivalries and misunderstandings. While relations were still good, however, Napoleon recognized Bernadotte’s talents, and in 1804, appointed him a Marshall of France. In 1805, Napoleon further rewarded Bernadotte by making him Prince of Ponto Corvo in Italy.

Relations began souring during the Prussian campaign in 1806. Napoleon severely criticized Bernadotte for failing to bring his corps to the hard-fought battles of Jena-Auerstadt, and barely refrained from court-martialing him for dereliction of duty. The relationship was sundered at the 1809 Battle of Wagram, after which Napoleon relieved Bernadotte of command for his poor handling of his troops.

Fortune smiled on Bernadotte soon thereafter, however, when Morner came calling. While Bernadotte had not been a great general while serving under Napoleon, he had been a humane one. After one battle, he treated Swedish prisoners kindly enough that, when they returned to Sweden, they had nothing but good things to say about him. It happened just when Sweden was looking for a crown prince.

Morner was a Swedish envoy in Paris, when he offered the crown to Bernadotte in 1810. The Swedish government, surprised and affronted by Morner’s unauthorized offer, had him arrested. The more the Swedes thought about it, however, the more appealing Bernadotte seemed, and the French Marshall’s candidature gradually gained favor. In August of 1810, the Riksdag elected him crown prince, the king appointed him to command Sweden’s armies, and Bernadotte became regent.

Once Bernadotte assumed the regency and governance of Sweden, he cast about for an accomplishment to solidify his authority. The opportunity came when Napoleon was weakened after his 1812 invasion of Russia ended in catastrophe. In 1813, Bernadotte switched sides, signed a treaty with Britain, declared war on France, and landed a Swedish army in northern Germany. In alliance with the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians, he got his payback against Napoleon by helping defeat him in the war’s biggest and bloodiest battle, at Leipzig, in 1813. After the war, he returned to Sweden, where he established the Bernadotte Dynasty, whose royal family reigns to this day.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Marble bust of Pompey the Great, dated circa 50 BC. Pintrest

Pompey the Great Was One of History’s Greatest Makers of Kings

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC) was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. He partnered with Julius Caesar to jointly rule Rome in the First Triumvirate, before the duo had a falling out that culminated in a civil war that ended badly for Pompey. Before he was eclipsed by Caesar, however, Pompey had once dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, and engaged in one of history’s most ambitious bouts of kingmaking as he reorganized the region to suit Rome’s needs.

Pompey was born into a powerful family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. His father was a general who became consul in 89 BC, and had a reputation for double dealing, greed, and ruthlessness. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC, and 19 year old Pompey inherited his vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.

Upon Sulla’s return to Italy from a war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with 3 legions in his march on and seizure of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from his Marian opponents, which Pompey accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. After executing the captured Marians, Pompey was hailed by h is troops as Magnus, or “the Great”.

After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC. He took his army back to Italy with him, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC.

In 67 BC, Pompey was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control, and he managed to do so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only 3 months. He was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean. He did that by annexing some kingdoms to the Roman Republic, and reducing others to client states. He engaged in wholesale kingmaking, removing and appointing kings and rulers throughout a vast territory stretching from the Danube to the Red Sea. That settlement was Pompey’s greatest and longest lasting achievement, which, with few modifications, endured for over 500 years.

Returning to Italy in 62 BC, he sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east, but political chaos in Rome prevented that. He finally accomplished his goals after forming a Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst the trio, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter. After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war when Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy in 49 BC.

Pompey and the optimates conservative faction fled to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Augustus. Wikimedia

After Defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus Repeated Pompey’s Wholesale Kingmaking

Following his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, Gaius Octavius, better known to history as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), acted as kingmaker in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rulers from the Nile in Egypt to the shores of the Black Sea were confirmed, deposed, or installed, as reward or punishment for their stances during the recently concluded conflict. Herod the Great, mentioned in the New Testament as having ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, was among the kings whose fates were decided by Augustus.

Octavius had been born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand uncle launched him into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. He was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.

Returning to Italy, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. However, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will, while Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager. Cicero, an elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him, quipping that he would “raise, praise, then erase” Octavius.

All underestimated Octavius. He paid for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity, and wooed Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. Cicero’s faction sought Octavius’ aid, bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius compelled the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.

He then double crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power sharing dictatorship. The duo then launched a massive purge that executed thousands of suspected opponents, including Cicero. They then went after Caesar’s assassins, defeating them, and exacting revenge. The duo swore friendship, sealing the bargain with Antony wedding Octavius’ sister. They then divided the Roman empire, with Antony ruling the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.

Things soured when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, and married her, abandoning Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated in 31 BC,. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, finally bringing the entire Roman empire under his control. Following his victory, Octavius engaged in a round of kingmaking in the Eastern Mediterranean, nearly as extensive as that of Pompey the Great a generation earlier.

Octavius then ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire, and led to a century of chaos and bloodshed. For restoring peace, the Senate granted Octavius the honorific “Augustus”, by which he would be known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy. It kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Pompey

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Praetorian Guard

BBC History – Augustus

Encyclopedia Britannica – ­Godwine, Earl of Wessex

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ricimer, Roman General

English Monarchs – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby

History Today – The Rebellion of Earl Godwin

Indian Express – Who Were the Sayyid Brothers?

Spectator, The, March 4th, 2017 – The Double-Edged Sword of the Praetorian Guard

Wikipedia – Carl Otto Morner

Wikipedia – Chanakya