Fratricide is a word that originates from two Latin words; frater, meaning brother and ceadere, meaning to kill. These two words lead to a practice used since ages: the act of killing one’s brothers.
Fratricide, as a practice, has existed through multiple empires. During the Roman empire, Geta was murdered on the orders of Caracalla, who were both Roman emperors. During the Persian empire, Cambyses killed his brother Bardiya. In the Tang dynasty, the Prince of Qin killed his elder and younger brother to ascend to the throne. Even in recent history, like the Mughal empire, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb had their brothers killed before ascending the throne. What made fratricide different in the Ottoman empire was that it was a legal and political practice that maintained peace in the realm.
Fratricide was not a legal practice at the foundation of the Ottoman empire. It was legalised over the years by Mehmed II. His grandfather, Mehmed I, struggled for the throne with his brothers, leading to an 8-year-long civil war. This civil war weakened and divided the Ottoman empire. When Mehmed II saw his grandfather’s struggle and its impact on the empire, he legalised fratricide.
This practice preserved the state and avoided division in the empire. Mehmed II is even quoted as:
“Any of my sons that ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people.”
Selim II, Mehmed II’s grandson, continued this practice when he ascended the throne after his father by killing his two brothers. Mehmed III practised the largest fratricide by killing 19 of his brothers and buried them alongside his father.
As cruel as this tradition seems, it had another side in the Ottoman empire. According to Islamic tradition, the kingdom was the dynasty’s common property, and the princes sacrificed themselves for the people and the state. The idea behind it comes from two sultans, or major power holders cannot reside in the same country. If they do so, it will lead to power struggles and wars, leading to people suffering. Through the practice of fratricide, this power struggle and wars were avoided.
Another thing practised in the Ottoman tradition was survival of the fittest. There was no set rule for succession, as seen in other empires where only the eldest son ascended the throne. All Ottoman princes were sent to Sanjak at the age of 12. These were the administrative divisions of the empire. These were the locations where the princes underwent political training and understood administrative matters.
The prince returned to the capital only at his father’s death to become a Sultan. He would eliminate all of his brothers in the process through ruthless politics. This practice allowed the most powerful and capable prince to ascend the throne. It also ensured the empire remained undivided even if the cost to be paid was royal blood. The executions performed were according to the laws set by the Sultan, as he held the highest judicial power.
The practice of fratricide ended when Sultan Ahmed I decided not to kill his brothers, a decision believed to be influenced by Kosem Sultan, his wife. After Sultan Ahmed I, his brother ascended the throne, though he had sons in succession. This move was new in Ottoman politics. This decision to stop fratricide caused many other issues and mishaps in the empire.
It was one of the decisions that led to the Sanjak system’s stopping. Due to this, the princes that ascended the throne in the later part of the Ottoman empire were inexperienced and lacked political and administrative skills. The imperial palace didn’t give them many chances to master these skills.
Another thing that the practice of fratricide bought was political stability. Since there were very few attempts of revolt and uprisings, the sultans earlier ruled for longer terms. This bought in political stability, which was lost in the game of politics that came in after the practice was abolished.