Worst Fathers in Classical Antiquity

These dads might have excuses for their behavior but it was still reprehensible

Just as the protagonist of Greek tragedy can't get out of his predicament, no matter how good his motives, so these fathers can't escape the label of terrible father no matter what their excuse. While you could probably find a list at least as long from fathers in the Bible and Mesopotamia, this list is limited to classical antiquity and includes both Greco-Roman myth and Mediterranean history.

There is an implicit hierarchy of charges against these males starting with filicide and cannibalism.

Readers should realize these fathers are the exceptions. They can be read as cautionary tales or as curiosities from a distant past. Some of them are noteworthy because they make this list, although in ancient Rome they might not have.

Your Turn: Pick the Worst Ancient Father.

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Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya
Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya. Public Domain; courtesy of http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/goya/
Top billing for the worst father has to go to Cronus / Saturn. All the rest can be debated, but a Titan who eats his children deliberately has got to be number one. Cronus knew what it was like to thwart the power of one's father. After all, he wasn't exactly a model son since he had castrated his father and assumed control of the world. Granted his father, Uranus, who probably warrants his own place on this list, tried to keep his children from being born.

Zeus was able to escape his father's predilection for infant nourishment and grew up in safety. He then returned and forced Cronus to regurgitate his brothers and sisters, who, being gods, were not much the worse for wear.

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The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and two soldiers holding Iphigenia
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and two soldiers holding Iphigenia. CC Flickr User virtusincertus
Agamemnon took control of the Achaean forces when they headed to Troy to take back the plunder that had been stolen from Agamemnon's brother Menelaus. Such plunder included the famous Helen of Troy, Agamemnon's sister-in-law twice over. Helen's sister was Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra who had born to him four children: Iphianassa, Chrysothemis, Laodice, and Orestes or according to other accounts, not Iphianassa and Laodice, but Iphigenia and Electra. Agamemnon had a knack for annoying people and gods with his imperious behavior, so when the winds were still and he couldn't sail from Aulis, the explanation for the obvious divine ire lay in his behavior. The only way to get the goddess on his side was to sacrifice to her, so he conned his wife into bringing Iphigenia to Aulis for a marriage to Achilles. There was no marriage. Instead there was a human sacrifice. The victim was his daughter.

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Tantalus didn't trick his wife with the ruse of a marriage, but, on the other hand, he didn't have as an excuse an executive order to perform a sacrifice; nonetheless he prepared his own son Pelops as a meal for the gods. Pelops survived being cooked and served up on a platter -- minus a shoulder, which Demeter had distractedly eaten.

It should be noted that Agamemnon was a descendant of Tantalus, so he could claim it was in his genes.

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Philip II of Macedonia
A Rare and Exceptional Greek Gold Half Stater of Philip II of Macedonia (359-336 B.C.E.). CC Flickr User Ancient Art
Philip of Macedon was a fine father for most of Alexander the Great's growing up, but charging at his son with a sword drawn qualifies him for a place in the hall of shame. He was drunk at the time and fell down without hurting his son, but it led to a family split.

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Titus Manlius Torquatus was renowned for his filial piety, and his actions towards his son were also in line with Roman concepts of virtue, like Brutus whose actions were similar. He fought bravely and insisted on his soldiers following the strictest Roman discipline. When his son saw an opportunity for glory, he stepped away from his post, killed a few of the enemy and then paid for his disobedience by having an ax sever his head from his neck by order of his father.

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Lucius Junius Brutus Condemns His Sons to Death
Lucius Junius Brutus Condemns His Sons to Death. NYPL Digital Gallery
Now Lucius Junius Brutus is looked upon as a paragon of Roman virtue, but one of the main reasons for this is that he was willing to sacrifice the lives of his sons for the sake of his country. While that makes Brutus patriotic, it says nothing positive of his skills as a father. If they were traitors, as he thought, then maybe he could have assumed some of the responsibility for an upbringing that led to it.

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Image ID: 1622884. Hérode, roi de Judée. (1858)
Image ID: 1622884. Hérode, roi de Judée. (1858). NYPL Digital Library
Herod the Great had two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobolus, executed (Josephus Antiquities16) on grounds of attempted parricide, the charge Augustus gave Herod permission to use for their execution. The means of killing them, according to Josephus, was strangulation.

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Image ID: 1803182 Constantine the Great. (288-337.) (ca. 1922-1939)
Image ID: 1803182 Constantine the Great. (288-337.) (ca. 1922-1939). NYPL Digital Gallery
We don't have the complete story on why Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, did it, but he had his eldest son, Crispus, executed. The most widely believed story puts Crispus and his step-mother, Fausta (who was also executed, later), in the same sort of relationship as Theseus' son, Hippolytus, and his step-mother, Phaedra.

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Hercules leading a big headed four-legged monster, late black figure bowl
Hercules leading a big headed four-legged monster, with black woolly fur, white belly, and floppy puppy ears. A late black figure bowl at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Photo © by Adrienne Mayor
Although his madness was goddess-induced and he expiated his crime via his 12 Labors, a crazed Hercules, who didn't think the people he saw were people at all, did murder his family.

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Photo by Ethan Lebovics
It's a classic conundrum. Whom do you believe: your wife or your son? Theseus opted to believe his wife (unfaithful and the proverbial woman scorned), so he had his son killed. Either he did it himself or he asked Poseidon to.