Library of Congress

The Pettiest Moves in Political History

With great power comes great pettiness — also torture, murder, insults and a very whipped ocean

“To get power you need to display absolute pettiness,” claimed Napoleon. Or, more accurately, said Jeff Bridges, playing a fictional U.S. President massively misquoting Napoleon before Congress in the 2000 political thriller The Contender.

Anyway, these are but petty quibbles. Hollywood Napoleon was right: Exhibiting shocking pettiness is something we’re all capable of (and some psychologists believe it even has its upsides), but when a head of state seizes on the most minor of transgressions and prioritizes their slap-back ahead of all other government business, it can project itself to the rest of the world as the ultimate power move.

The broad sweep of human history shows us that pettiness on a grand scale (if that’s not a complete contradiction) has been with us since long before social media, Kylo Ren and a certain current occupant of the White House made it a source of wonder and fascination. Snubs, small-minded spats and overblown recriminations are nothing new in international geopolitics. And so, here are a few of the more ridiculous episodes from the annals of anally-retentive antagonism…

Xerxes: “You embarrass me with riches? I turn your boy into kebab.”

In the very first great work of Western history, the Greek writer Herodotus presents us with a far more complex and dickish version of the Persian king Xerxes than the godlike jewelry organizer we know from the movie 300. Xerxes’ most famous petty gesture is the time he “punished” the sea: After a storm destroyed a bridge for his invasion force, the ruler of the mightiest empire the world had ever known had his men give the Bosphorus strait 300 lashes while yelling insults into the waves: “How right people are not to offer sacrifice to you — turbid and briny river that you are!”

Ouch.

But Xerxes appears as an even classier King of Kings when his army is lavishly received as guests by a wealthy ally, Pythius, who also offers to donate all of his fortune to fund Persia’s invasion of Greece. Herodotus relates that when their stay was up and Pythius asked for a fairly reasonable favor in return — to discharge his eldest son from service in the Persian army — Xerxes reacted by ordering his men to have the boy killed. And then, extra pettily, hacked in two, “to place one half on the right hand side of the road and one half on the left, so that the army would file out midway through.”

Caligula: “Pretty boy? How you like being center of attention now?”

The notoriously unhinged Roman emperor Caligula is another ruler who heroically attacked a large body of water: His planned British invasion of 40 A.D. ended with him farcically ordering his soldiers to gather shells on the shore of the English Channel, then declaring them “spoils from the Ocean” before marching everyone home.

His four-year reign is legendary for his descent into psychotic sadism and sexual depravity, but it also serves as a template for all of subsequent history’s petty overreactions and power plays. He took particular pleasure in humiliating members of the Roman Senate: A favorite scheme was to invite a group of them to dinner, only to disappear with one senator’s terrified wife between courses, then return and describe the sex they’d just had in excruciating detail to the gathered company over dessert.

Plenty of anecdotes on Caligula’s wanton cruelty have survived the centuries, but perhaps his pettiest moment was forcing one young noble to enter the gladiatorial arena for the crime of being too good looking, and inadvertently putting the imperial face in the shade at court. The poor head-turner survived two bouts before Caligula had him dragged off and executed anyway.

King John: “Withholding taxes? I go Medieval on your family.”

It turns out that the Bad King John of Robin Hood folklore was every bit as mean-spirited as the legends suggest. When he got himself embroiled in a territorial dispute with his subjects on the French side of the Channel — by swooping in to marry a French count’s 12-year-old fiancée — he doubled down by demanding absolute loyalty and financial contributions from England’s barons to fund the coming war. Those who objected to his nationwide campaign of extortion tended to fall victim to his cruel streak.

According to the British historian Robert Tombs, “The wife and son of one recalcitrant baron were starved to death in the dungeons of Windsor; three sons of another were killed, two after being castrated, and a seven-year-old by hanging.”

On the upside, it was exactly this sort of petty viciousness that led to the nobles finally ganging up on John in 1215 and forcing him to sign the Magna Carta, the landmark document that guaranteed his subjects legal protection against the Crown. This enshrined a long tradition of formalizing liberties against petty tyrants, which culminated in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Frederick William I of Prussia: “You mess up my laces? I shoot your faces.”

Prussia’s “Soldier King” of the early 1700s possessed a formidable attention to detail, which helped him micromanage his middle-ranking German territory into one of Europe’s leading military powers. However, his extreme control-freakery extended to his household, too. He is said to have carried pistols loaded with salt around the palace, which he occasionally fired into the faces of his staff when they displeased him, blinding at least one servant, as well as administering regular beatings to them and his own family with his cane.

When his son (who grew up to be Frederick the Great) attempted to flee to England to escape his bad-tempered dad, Frederick had him court-martialed — and had his tutor, who had helped arrange the escape, executed in front of him for good measure.

History had the last laugh, though: Toward the end of World War II, Adolf Hitler (a huge fan of FW’s work and no stranger to monumental displays of pettiness himself) ordered Frederick’s coffin to be hidden from the advancing Allies. After the armistice, occupying American troops found it buried in a salt mine.

Andrew Jackson: “Didn’t vote for me? That’s dueling talk.”

Back in the 1800s, U.S. Presidents didn’t have Twitter to lash out against perceived insults and personal slights: They had dueling. And Andrew Jackson’s honor-satisfaction account was, even by the standards of the day, pretty prolific. He might not have fought the “over 100 duels” of Jacksonian legend, but he was nevertheless a fearsome, ill-tempered man known for doggedly defending his honor, and it’s thought he participated in at least five throughout his life.

As a measure of Jackson’s low it’s-to-the-death-then-sir threshold, his first duel was fought in 1788 against a fellow attorney, Waightstill Avery. Jackson had challenged him, apparently, because Avery had out-argued him in a court case, but at 10 paces, both men thought better of it and fired into the air.

This wasn’t, however, the case for the most famous duel the future seventh President of the United States took part in: In 1806, Jackson shot and killed another lawyer, Charles Dickinson, having already received a bullet to the chest from his opponent. The incident that sparked the fatal contest? Dickinson had called Jackson “a coward and an equivocator” in a newspaper article after Jackson had got into an quarrel with Dickinson’s father-in-law over a horse race.

The KGB: “You dare defect? We give you some nasty cuts on the feet.”

In the 1960s, with the Cold War at its height, the Soviet Union really didn’t like it when its citizens defected to the West. So when Rudolf Nureyev, the most famous ballet dancer in the world, shuffled away from his minders on a 1961 visit to Paris and into the arms of waiting French police officers, the KGB sprang into action to make an example of him. As Nureyev embarked on a new career on the stages of Western Europe, a KGB operative who later defected to the U.K. reported that, in 1962, the Kremlin was looking at a number of “special actions” to impair the dancer’s “professional skills.” Options (which were never carried out) included breaking “one or both” of Nureyev’s legs and sprinkling glass on the stage at his performances.

Saparmurat Niyazov: “You live in my country? I ban things at random.”

Turkmenistan under the eccentric Communist dictator Saparmurat Niyazov didn’t have a problem with defecting dancers: That’s because he banned ballet in 2001, along with opera and circuses, because he thought it was “un-Turkmen-like.” This was just one of a catalogue of weirdly small-minded decrees he inflicted on his poverty-stricken and horribly oppressed people. During his 21-year rule, Niyazov also banned: Dogs from the capital city (because he didn’t like how they smelled); beards (because of their association with Islamic fundamentalism); smoking (because following heart surgery he’d had to quit himself); TV news anchors from wearing makeup (because, he claimed, he was having trouble telling the male reporters from the female reporters); and lip-syncing to music at public events ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

Perhaps his pettiest insistence, though, was that citizens of Turkmenistan should read and memorize a book he wrote — the Ruhnama, or The Book of the Soul. Published in 2001, passing an exam on the text soon became part of the interview process for jobs in government and a compulsory element in the national driving test.

Putin: “Let’s negotiate? Negotiate with dog.”

Going relatively unchallenged as one of the world’s most powerful leaders for the past 18 years hasn’t stopped Vladimir Putin feeling the need to assert his masculinity from time to time, with the odd shabby power move. In 2007, he apparently played on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fear of dogs when, during a press call between the two leaders at his home in Sochi, he had his big Black Labrador Connie ushered into the room. As Merkel recoiled in visible discomfort with Connie sniffing at her thigh, Putin asked: “The dog does not bother you, does she? She’s a friendly dog and I’m sure she will behave herself.”

Professor Ian Robertson, director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College, Dublin, assessed the Russian President’s motives for doing this in a recent BBC documentary as, “Just so he could enjoy the somewhat sadistic power that comes from making someone frightened.”

What a very strong leader he is.