Advancing through the ranks by killing your superior

In a lot of sci fi and fantasy, cultures are depicted in which one way, or even the only way, to advance through the ranks of society (or of some segment of it) is by killing a superior–thereby taking their place.

I am wondering if there are any precedents for this in human history. Right now it seems to me such a system would never be sustainable, but I’ve been surprised before.

I’m reading Susan Wise Bauer’s *The History of the Ancient World, *and it seems to be fairly common to assassinate and take on the role of the leader. Not as a formal strategy, but pragmatically it appears to happen with some frequency, especially among those who are in the line of succession and impatient.

That’s how few Roman emperors got to be Roman emperors …

It seems assassinating the Pope worked for some:

Lots of dictatorships and mafia coups have had this happen.


You have to be able to keep it, though. Private Abel stabbing General Cain to death won’t elevate Abel any because he doesn’t have the troops, wealth, connections to hang onto the job (if he did, he wouldn’t be a private). Abel’d just be executed for murder and/or insurrection.

Colonel Seth, on the other hand, might make a fine general if that one obstacle were removed by a shiv in the dark.

A certain modicum of judgment is required. You can’t just go assassinatin’ willy-nilly and expect to elevate yourself. You have to be assured that the people will follow you in place of the old guy. There are basically two possible outcomes:

A. “You killed our jerk leader!” bow
2. “You killed our leader, jerk!” stab

I need to clarify the question. I’m talking about cultures where that’s the officially, culturally accepted method of succession.

I think we were all just clarifying that just anybody can’t move up by knifing their superior, no matter their culture. I’m not familiar with any societies that embrace that system, so that’s about all that I can offer.

Literally dozens of Roman emperors were assassinated or murdered by the Praetorian Guard or their troops. I’m not sure how many were replaced by subordinates who had orchestrated their killing. I think the Guard or the army would often select some puppet to put on the throne for a while until he displeased them. If not official, this was commonplace.

From the ‘Succession practice’ of the Wikipedia entry on the Ottomoan Dynasty

“From the fourteenth through the late sixteenth centuries, the Ottomans practiced open succession – something historian Donald Quataert has described as “survival of the fittest, not eldest, son.” During their father’s lifetime, all adult sons of the reigning sultan obtained provincial governorships. Accompanied and mentored by their mothers, they would gather supporters while ostensibly following a Ghazi ethos. Upon the death of the reigning sultan, his sons would fight amongst themselves until one emerged triumphant. A prince’s proximity to Constantinople improved his chances of succession, simply because he would hear of his father’s death and declare himself Sultan first. A sultan could thus hint at his preferred successor by giving a favourite son a closer governorship. Bayezid II, for instance, had to fight his brother Cem Sultan in the 1480s for the right to rule.”

Perhaps not quite what you were after as its more of a flat organisational structure, as all the governors are technically potential candidates rather than working your way up a blood-soaked promotion ladder.

This made me laugh! :smiley:

The only culture I know of where that’s the officially, culturally accepted method of succession is the WAAAGH! Even the dystopian backstabbing snakepit that was the Soviet government in its two early decades never made it officially accepted.

There’s no way that kind of army would be able to function in battle. Calls for reinforcement would be ignored, fragging would be routine, and no-one would take any personal risks because they’d know the guy next to them won’t have their back. In short, why kill the enemy when killing your own side is better for your career?

Hell, it wouldn’t function outside of battle, either:

“Hey corporal, hand me that wrench.”

“Sure thing, sarge.”* [WHAM]* “Guess I’m the sergeant now.”

Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps organized crime is an example although even there, they’ll try to keep it quiet or have some pretext. If you became boss through killing the boss, you don’t want others to think it’s ok to do that since you’re the boss who might get killed now.

The impression I get is that the Israeli military is the diametrical opposite of that. How does it go about instilling that ethos and organizational culture?

All functional modern military forces are that way - the U.S. military no less than the Israeli.

Hell, even Roman generals made sure to only kill rivals from *other *legions. To do otherwise would be madness, even then.

The Klingons?

Seriously, you are not going to find any example of this outside of science fiction and fantasy. A culture where the “official” way of advancing socially is to kill your superior would destroy itself in short order. Assassinations and coups can probably be found in all human cultures, and while overthrowing the odd weak or tyrannical leader this way may be tolerated or even lauded, it’s never the norm.

Seems to me like it’s “go for the throne, or go for the paycheck”. Most people wouldn’t dare the former, rather settle for the latter. Still, there’s always some crazy guy like Idi Amin…