Genghis Khan; Catherine the Great; Basil Bulgaroctonus; the Kangxi Emperor. These are just a few of the illustrious names which bored History students are forced to memorize and regurgitate in exams. Great kings and emperors, and their victories, great public works, and state reorganizations, come down to us through history, and provide vivid examples of achievement and skill from any era, any culture, and occasionally serve as inspiration for young ne'er do-wells in today's world. Their deeds have been immortalized in words, art, and film, and with each utterance of their exalted name they achieve a small measure more of immortality.

But for every Great Emperor, the scrap heap of history is positively filled with mediocrities, failures, and sometimes evil leaders, who for one reason or another are relegated, at best, to mere footnotes in the great histories, and at worst are doomed to almost total obscurity. They, too, donned the Imperial insignia, royal seal, and sacred jewels of their more famous counterparts; yet for one reason or another, they have been shrouded by the mists of time, and quickly forgotten about. I've always found myself drawn more to these obscure characters, for whatever reason; maybe I can draw more parallels to my own life with their struggles, failures and misdeeds, than I can to some snotty overachiever like Frederick the Great.

Keep in mind that this is not necessarily limited to successful leaders. Catastrophically bad ones, like Commodus and Nicholas II, earn their own little slice of history by virtue of their incompetence. No, I'm talking about those who tried, maybe not as hard as they could have, and achieved little, if anything.

But what makes a mediocre Emperor such? Is is personal failings? Born into the wrong circumstances? One or two really bad decisions? Let's take a look at some oft-overlooked leaders from history, and try to figure this out; a study in mediocrity, if you will.

Andronikos IV Palaiologos, Byzantine Emperor, 1376-1379

Andronikos IV, born in 1348, made his first real appearance in the history books in 1373, when he and his lover, Savci Bey, rebelled against their respective fathers, John V Palaiologos of Byzantium and Murad I of the Ottoman Empire. Predictably, both rebellions failed, and they were each imprisoned by their fathers; Murad had Savci blinded, and demanded that John V do the same to his son; John, ever the politician, chose to have Andronikos blinded in only one eye.

This request perhaps underscores the feeble state of the Roman Empire at this time. Part of the reason Andronikos rebelled in the first place was that he was dissatisfied with his father's decision to submit to Murad as a vassal state in 1371, reasonable given the fact that the crumbling Empire was surrounded on almost all sides by the burgeoning Ottomans. In addition, the Venetians and Genoese, locked in almost perpetual war, maintained a stranglehold on almost all Byzantine trade and military matters by monopolizing entire trade areas (such as Tenedos and Galata), and providing most of the Imperial army's mercenary troops. As a result, Byzantium at this period was almost powerless over its own affairs, and the vicious internecine strife which had raged since 1341 didn't help matters.

It was this weakened state that Andronikos, the fourth of the name, took control of in 1376. The Genoese were incensed at John for selling the lucrative trading island of Tenedos to the Venetians, and so recruited the help of Turkish troops to help free Andronikos from his imprisonment. Andronikos, together with his Turkish troops and Genoese mercenaries, marched on Constantinople and deposed his father, whom he duly imprisoned in turn.

Reign and Legacy

Andronikos, though incensed by his father's submission to the Ottomans, in many ways exemplifies the tactical (as opposed to strategic) outlook shared by Byzantium's rulers during this period, giving away and selling parts of the drastically diminished Empire in return for assistance during times of internecine strife. His first actions upon accession were to give Tenedos to the Genoese and highly strategic Gallipoli back to the Ottomans as payment for their help, and in 1377 he made his young son John co-emperor (John VII) in an attempt to bolster his own claim to the throne.

Unfortunately, Andronikos' fate, much in the same way he became emperor, was almost entirely out of his hands. The governor of Tenedos refused to just hand over the island to the Genoese, and subsequently allied with Venice; then in 1379 John V, together with his second son Manuel, escaped their imprisonment and fled to the court of Murad I. John V, who is rather like Byzantium's greasy whack-a-mole (triumphing over no fewer than three usurpations during his fifty-year rule), allied with Ottoman and Venetian troops in exchange for, surprise surprise, the Byzantine exclave of Philadelphia; they then marched on Constantinople and duly overthrew Andronikos. And so, the slow chiselling away of the last of the Roman Empire continued in the name of petty familial disputes.

Andronikos achieves mediocrity due to four crucial factors; internecine strife, lack of strategic thinking, short reign and, unfortunately for him, being born as heir to an already dying empire. History records no glaring personal defects (save for one blind eye), and so in this area he does redeem himself somewhat; much unlike our following study.

Tianqi, Emperor of China, 1620-1627

The accession of Tianqi, born Zhu Youxiao in 1605, to the Ming Dynasty throne was entirely unexpected. His father, the Taichang Emperor, succeeded Wanli in August 1620, and promptly died after a bout of diarrhea twenty-nine days later. The fifteen-year-old, however, was wholly unprepared for the throne; he was illiterate, for starters, and the daily duties of the Dragon Throne apparently held no interest for him whatsoever, as he appears to have spent most of his reign engaged in carpentry.

Tianqi's illiteracy and disinterest in the job provided a golden opportunity for two shameless opportunists; Madam Ke, his wetnurse, and Wei Zhongxian, the head palace eunuch, who practically ruled China over the seven years of Tianqi's reign. Upon Taichang's death, Madam Ke quickly moved to have every single concubine in the palace starved to death, thus ensuring that she would be the only female to hold sway over young Tianqi's ear. Wei Zhongxian meanwhile started appointing trusted friends to high palace positions, and by 1624 had gained so much influence that he started signing papers as the "second emperor"; he is widely considered to be the most influential eunuch in Chinese history (but honourable mention goes to Zheng He).

Reign and Legacy

Strong empires can sometimes survive weak emperors; witness Caligula, Ibrahim I of the Ottoman Empire, or George II Bush (just kidding. Probably). But Ming Dynasty China had been beset by over a century of poor governance, reaching its nadir under Tianqi's grandfather the Wanli emperor, who, for the last twenty years of his reign, refused to speak to any minister or government official, and would not fill any government vacancies nor sign any government document whatsoever. In fact, tantalizing clues exist that he may have been a heavy opium smoker, much like Humayun of the Mughal Empire. In any case, this led to a fair amount of bureaucratic chaos; without any guidance from the throne, the vast Ming bureaucracy descended into corruption, decadence, and rule by cliques, which prompted some higher government officials to form the reactionary Donglin Party, advocating a return to strict Confucian ideals. On top of that, the newly resurgent Jurchen Manchus began raiding northeast China with increased ferocity, stretching the already strained and decaying Ming army to its limit.

In retrospect, this was probably the worst possible time to have another completely remote emperor, combined with two remarkably short-sighted, self-serving usurpers, but in a sense, blame can't be placed with Tianqi. It's been suggested that he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome or dyslexia, and his accession was totally, utterly unexpected; it's rather like expecting a kid in auto shop to write a summary of the causes and effects of the Schleswig-Holstein question. Still, Madam Ke and Wei Zhongxian proceeded to run what was left of Ming China into the ground, and upon Tianqi's death in 1627, both were duly relieved of their positions, and heads, by the new emperor, Tianqi's younger brother, the Chongzhen Emperor. Chongzhen was by all accounts a capable, if somewhat paranoid ruler, but he was dealt a shit hand; sixteen years later, overwhelmed by popular revolts, he committed suicide in Beijing with the massive Manchu army at the gates.

To call Tianqi an obscure figure would, to a Chinese person, be patently absurd. But in the final analysis, his personal defects relegate him to the recycling bin of history; it's not known his opinions on state governance, on account of he was both illiterate and didn't give a shit. It might have been tolerable had he inherited a strong empire, but with one already racked by corruption and internecine strife, it proved to be the death blow to Ming China.

Trebonianus Gallus, Roman Emperor, 251-253

It's hard to be the king, particularly in 3rd century Rome. Trebonianus Gallus, tenth emperor during the Crisis period, found this out the hard way (though not nearly as hard as Valerian). Born in 205 to a Senatorial family, Mr. Gallus worked his way through the ranks of both Roman politics and military, eventually being nominated military governor of Moesia Superior (modern-day Serbia, roughly) by the emperor Decius in 250 AD. Decius, in 251, was killed by the very Goths he had pledged to destroy, and since Trebonianus Gallus had a decent track record vs. barbarians (read: actually won a battle or two), he was acclaimed emperor by his troops, much to the chagrin of Decius's son Hostilian (great name), who, as it happened, died of the plague later that year anyway.

Ever since Septimius Severus strengthened the military's power to clean up the mess left behind by Commodus, Didius Julianus and Pertinax, the Praetorian Guard more or less had final say over who was going to be emperor, more often than not killing the candidate they were less disposed towards. However, after killing the emperor Alexander Severus in 235, they took the next logical step and started nominating Emperors from inside the military itself, thus ensuring that Rome, for the next fifty years, would be ruled by a military junta of sorts, where emperors from the army would be murdered by the army and new ones from the army acclaimed by the army; it worked like clockwork every two or three years.

Reign and Legacy

Trebonianus Gallus, by most accounts a relatively honourable man, had the distinct misfortune of ruling over the empire during this most tumultuous period. There is some rumour that he intentionally led a weak force into the Battle of Abrittus, where Decian was killed, in order to ensure the death of the emperor, but it is largely unsubstantiated. Rather, Gallus was very much an emperor of his time; his main concerns were keeping the troops happy, fighting the Goths, and persecuting Christians, having imprisoned Pope Cornelius in 252. He also showed a populist side, providing burial services for the thousands of victims of the Antonine Plague.

Unfortunately, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately atmosphere of Rome, his honeymoon period would not last long. The Persian king Shapur I invaded and captured Syria in 252, along with increased incursions from the Goths along the Danubian frontier in the same year. The Imperial army, stretched to its limit, was unable to deal with either of these crises (completely ignoring Syria in the process); so Gallus' replacement in Moesia, Aemilianus, took the initiave in decisively defeating the Goths in modern-day Turkey. His own troops then proclaimed him emperor, and he duly marched on Rome (leaving Moesia almost entirely devoid of troops), where the rubber-stamp senate named him emperor in favour of Trebonianus Gallus. Gallus, along with his son Volusianus were prepared for a fight, but never got the chance; they were murdered, ignominiously, by their own troops in August 253.

As was the style at the time, Aemilian was himself defeated by the superior troops of Valerian three months later, who was himself captured and murdered, after many years of torture, by the Persian Empire's Shapur I. Unlike our previous two studies in mediocrity, Trebonianus Gallus was neither concerned with internecine strife nor suffered from undue personal defects; rather, he was an honourable man born into dishonourable circumstances, who could have expected no more time on the throne than he got, and couldn't have enacted any lasting reform if he'd have tried. I guess he's lucky that, eighteen hundred years later, some lame factotum named vonCube is wasting precious pixels in his memory at all. If I knew that sometime in the mid 3800's someone wrote about me, I think I'd cry. Anyway...


Over history, there seems to be five distinct factors which make up a failed leadership, all of which were touched on by the leaders I've chosen. They are, in no particular order:

  • Internecine Strife: Fighting amongst one's own family for control at the expense of one's own nation almost invariably leads to ignominy and failure. Unless, of course, you're not a failure.
  • Tactical vs. Strategic thinking: Trying to figure out what will keep you in power next year, as opposed to what will keep your nation prominent in the next century, is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Sten Sture.
  • Short Reigns Sometimes, a leader with so much promise shuffles off this mortal coil just a little too soon before they can effect real change. John Thompson and Murad IV of the Ottomans would fall under this category; a case could also be made for Joseph II of Austria. In other news, I believe this is the first time in human history all three of those names have been uttered in the same sentence. Anyways,
  • Personal Defects: What a massive, widely ranged category this is. Sometimes, personal defects can lead a leader to glory, such as the blood lust of Ivan the Terrible and Mao Zedong. More often though, the reverse is true, whether it's Ibrahim I's obsession with finding, and bedding, the fattest woman in his empire; or Maximilian I's belief that the people of Mexico would truly come to love, and accept him. Sorry, Max. Wrong.
  • Wrong place, wrong time: Sometimes, you're just a day late and a dollar short; that's not your fault, really. Fuckin' way she goes, as they say in these parts. Unfortunately, luck of the draw does seem to be a major determining factor in greatness; Abraham Lincoln, born fifteen years later, might have been a Tammany Hall hack, and if the Hongwu emperor decides not to join a Buddhist monastery in his youth, he never founds the Ming Dynasty. A lucky few, by virtue of their choices, are bound for greatness; for the vast remainder, there is only ignominy, obscurity, and if they're lucky, a relatively complete Wikipedia entry.

In any case, I hope you found this writeup informative, and if not that, then mildly entertaining. I might add another emperor or two as time passes, but for the time being, I'm satisfied. But just remember: should you find yourself in a leadership position over a small-medium-large-sized empire, learn to read, kick some strategic ass, and be born +/- 50 years, as needed. I will node you then.