6. King Munmu the Great (문무왕r. 661 – 681 C.E.): King Munmu wasn’t dubbed “the Great” for nothing. A nephew of the famed general Kim Yu-shin, Munmu was the Shilla Emperor responsible for finally defeating both the Beakjae and Gogoruyeo kingdoms (with some assistance from Tang China) and uniting the Korean peninsula under one flag in 668 C.E. (for which he built the pleasure Palace at Anapji Pond in commemoration). If this fact alone didn’t already make him worthy or greatness, upon his death he ordered that his ashes be scattered in the East Sea (at present day Daereungwon) so his spirit could become a great dragon and defend the coast from marauding pirates and invaders.
7. King Gyeongdeok (경덕왕, r.742 – 765 C.E.): Ruling for almost a quarter century at the height of the Shilla Dynasty’s golden age, Gyeongdeok was responsible for building most of the big tourist sites that remain standing in Gyeongju. He began construction of the famed Bulguksa Temple in 751 C.E. along with the exquisite Seokguram Grotto. He also commissioned the casting of the 19 ton bronze “Emille” Bell in remembrance of his father, King Seongdeok, in 771 C.E. which now hangs in a special pavilion on the grounds of the Gyeongju National Museum. Considered perhaps the finest cast bronze bell in the whole of antiquity, the Emile Bell is known for the surprisingly un-Buddhist legend that the life of an infant girl had to be sacrificed in order that it be cast successfully.
8. King Shinmu (신무왕, r. 839 C.E.): Amidst yet another Shakespearean web of plotting, betrayal and assassination, King Shinmu holds the title for the shortest reign ever by Shilla Monarch: a mere 3 months! When a struggle for succession broke out in 836 C.E., Shinmu’s father was pitted against the dead king’s nephew, Jeryung, in a bid for the throne. When his father was killed and Jeryung was crowned as King Huigang in 836 C.E., Shinmu fled to the mountains. While in hiding, Kim Myeong, one of Huigang’s most trusted aids, rose up against Huigang in a coup. After forcing Huigang to commit suicide, Kim Myeong crowned himself King Minae in 838 C.E. All this confusion and royal flip-flopping gave Shinmu time to round up his allies. Emerging from hiding, Shinmu‘s forces defeated the armies of King Minae in Daegu. Minae himself was killed in the royal palace after all his supporters had fled. Shinmu seized the throne only to die three months later from illness.
9. Queen Jinseong (진성여왕, r. 887 – 897 C.E.) Third and last Queen of the Shilla Dynasty, Queen Jinseong’s rule was the antithesis of Queen Seondeok’s. Rather than being an age of expansion and innovation, Jinseong’s reign saw the Shilla Empire fracture and begin to crumble. Her government failed to effectively collect taxes, conscript soldiers or even maintain basic public order. Her inability to govern allowed two successful rebellions that tore the once great Shilla Empire into pieces. Yet, through all this civil strife, Queen Jinseong managed to keep her spirits up with lavish parties and high profile love affairs. She even developed a reputation for hiring handsome boys to visit her palace for “lewd acts” and orgies.
10. King Gyeongae (경애왕, r. 924 – 927 C.E.): The second to last king of the Shilla Dynasty, Gyeongae epitomized the moral corruption and weakness that plagued the final years of the Shilla Dynasty. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, King Gyeongae was partying in Poseokjeong Pleasure Palace while a vengeful King Gyeong Hwon (of the Hubeakchae Kingdom) invaded and sacked Gyeongju. Caught with his pants down, Gyeongae chose suicide over surrender, leaving his capital city, along with his wives and courtesans, at the mercy of Gyeong Hwon’s troops. Sadly Gyeong Hwon inaugurated the tragic tradition of plundering and burning Gyeongju, which was repeated by the Mongols in the 13th century and again the Japanese in the late 16th century C.E., which left very little standing of the once great Shilla capital.
I’ve skipped over a lot of other key figures in Shilla history while making this list. But, at the very least, I hope this helps breathe a little life into the barrage of names and dates inscribed on Gyeongju’s historical markers. There are a lot of great stories and legends about the ancient Shilla Emperors and their times. If you’d like to read more, pick up copies of the Samguk Sagi (삼국사기), or “History of the Three Kingdoms,” and Samguk Yusa (삼국유사), or “Overlooked Historical Records of the Three Korean Kingdoms.”