One man’s hero is another man’s tyrant, a popular maxim goes. When we think about the most-villainous dictators in history, our minds conjure up images of Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Hitler – the top three picks for humanity’s Worst Person award. But it’s important to remember that brutality existed in rulers well before the 1930s. There have been cruel leaders at all times and ages. As it turns out, more than one ruthless dictator wanted a shot at that brass ring.
Here are the top 10 cruelest rulers in history.
1. Genghis Khan
In the 800 years since he created and ruled the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan has become somewhat of a household name. Known as a ruthless ruler who wiped entire cities off the map and was not shy about executing everyone who got in his way, the sheer brutality of his conquest can sometimes be glossed over or forgotten. Nobody can rise to the top without a little creativity.
And Khan was no exception. This was especially true when it came to offing people. Khan’s army of Mongols believed that if your blood spilled on the ground, you would not be allowed into the afterlife. So, they became proficient at bloodless eliminations. To accomplish this, the Mongols were prone to snapping necks, strangulation, or the more popular approach of throwing a killer party. But it’s not any party you would want to be invited to.
It usually involved piling captured nobles under a large board, which would then become the floor of a great banquet, slowly crushing those stuffed underneath as the Mongol army enjoyed a nice meal and presumably did the electric slide. Khan also once made a rival wear a face mask of molten silver, which is a harsh but effective exfoliation technique. And he would use captives as human shields in combat. Khan was so effective in his brutality that he wiped out an estimated 40 million people – roughly 11% of the population of the time.
2. Tamerlane the Great
You can call him Tamerlane The Great. You can call him Timur. Just don’t call him late for dinner, or you may just find your head sitting atop a massive pile of skulls. The undefeated Tamerlane was a Turkish conqueror who is lauded by historians as one of the greatest military tacticians ever to live. Timur believed he was a descendant of Genghis Khan and, as such, claimed an empire of his own, which stretched from Russia to India and the Mediterranean region.
Tamerlane also invoked his ancestor’s legacy, military prowess, and utter lack of concern for human life by adopting a no-mercy approach to conquering. One such method was the construction of towers of human skulls, of which there were believed to have been hundreds. The story says that Tamerlane ordered each of his soldiers to return to him with at least two heads, which would be used to build his freaky decorations.
3. Vlad the Impaler
Vlad the Impaler may just be the inspiration for modern horror, a title which was earned many times over during his rule in the 15th century. He is often cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for reasons that will soon be pretty obvious. As a young man, Vlad and his brother were taken hostage in the Ottoman Empire to ensure the loyalty of Vlad’s father. But when young Vlad was finally released, he learned that the Ottoman overlords had whacked his father anyway.
Vlad did what anyone who subsequently inspired several decades of Goth poetry would do – he took on the title of Vlad, III, Dracula, or son of Dracul, and set off on a series of crusades against those who wronged his family. And when we say crusades, what we really mean is a revenge rampage. Vlad had several greatest-hit tactics he would employ against his enemies, each more gruesome than the last.
But of all the sinister tools in his belt, Vlad’s absolute favorite was impaling, which is both exactly what it sounds like and exactly how he got his name. Vlad’s alarming gift for violence became a legend that continued to live on through folklore, which added embellishments about his eating habits that would eventually evolve into the inspiration for Dracula.
4. Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang is known for unifying the Chinese empire by creating the Qin Dynasty in the early 220s BCE. How did Huang manage it? With a simple three-pronged initiative – dismantle the entire education system, be unreasonably erratic in the way you govern, and work the general populace to death. That sounds like the world’s grimmest infomercial. When Huang seized power in 221 BCE, he stuck to a pattern of severe punishment, speaking incoherently, and issuing completely nonsensical orders to his constituents.
Huang grew paranoid about the danger posed by an educated public, so he waged war on book-learning. He burned priceless books and bumped off 460 Confucian scholars in a single year because they were unable to make him immortal. Huang tried to establish an elaborate transportation system, as well, as a wall so great it could keep out his enemies. But that’s not the Great Wall of China. That came later.
To support these infrastructure projects, Qin established a peasant class by declaring all to be equal under one law and imposed massive taxes. Poor leadership, high taxes, and the strict overseeing of hard labor led to disaster for his people. Thousands starved, succumbed to disease, or were simply worked until they collapsed into their graves. Pretty steep price to pay for a vanity construction project.
5. Ivan the Terrible
Ivan IV of Russia, often referred to as Ivan the Terrible, has a supervillain back story full of political conspiracy and corruption. Because you don’t earn a nickname like that by volunteering at a church. He watched as power was snatched away from his mother, who was allegedly poisoned by rivals in 1547. In response, Ivan sought revenge by destroying everything in his path. Because guys like him tend to overreact. For instance, after Ivan invaded Novgorod, he dressed their archbishop in bear skin and literally hunted him down with dogs.
Many others not lucky enough to be clad in warm fur were tied to sleighs and driven into freezing waters. His family wasn’t safe, either. After a heated argument, Ivan clubbed his heir so severely that he suffered brain damage and eventually perished. On another occasion, Ivan attacked his pregnant daughter-in-law until she miscarried. Ironically, Ivan passed away relatively gently, suffering a heart attack in 1584 while playing chess. Whoever had been brave enough to play the game with him probably breathed a huge sigh of relief.
6. Leopold II
In the late 19th century, Belgian King Leopold II established the world’s first private colony, the Congo Free State located in the heart of Africa. Leopold saw himself as a protector of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but his desire to spread Christianity and to make fat, fat stacks of cash led to decades of forced labor and violence against the local population. Leopold became rich in the ivory trade and even richer when he realized his land was abundant with rubber trees.
The rise of cars and bicycles shifted Leopold’s business interests to the rubber trade. And he was willing to do whatever it took to keep business booming. To ensure the rubber exports never stopped, Leopold ordered that the locals be forced to work constantly. This was enforced by a rise in kidnappings, assaults, and vicious beatings visited upon anyone who resisted or who simply didn’t work fast enough.
Being a ghoulishly practical man, Leopold wanted confirmation that his subordinates weren’t wasting any ammunition on animals. So, he instructed them to bring him the heads of any workers they offed to prove they weren’t needlessly throwing away bullets. Today, historians estimate that Leopold and his colonizers took the lives of as many as 10 million people.
7. Pol Pot
The US forces in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s incited a political revolution in Cambodia, with Pol Pot right at the center of it. He wanted to root out any shred of capitalism in Cambodia and established a full-on Agrarian communist society. Whether the Cambodian people wanted it or not, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge party took power in 1975 and swiftly put his plan into action. 2 million Cambodian people were forced out of the city and set to work in the fields. The goal was to create a peasant class and eliminate Cambodia’s urbanites and intellectuals.
In fact, the peasant class was so ill-regarded that they were told, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Pol Pot had a broad spectrum of brutality that included rampant starvation, disease, and routine capital punishment. Many peasants who managed to avoid all of that were fatally overworked in the fields. Even though he was only in power for a four-year period between 1975 and 1979, he was responsible for the loss of approximately 1.5 million lives.
8. Maximilien Robespierr
Maximilien Robespierre is a controversial figure in history. He was an advocate for universal voting rights. And he fought against racial and religious discrimination. First of all, Robespierre was the foremost ruler during the revolutionary time known as the French Reign of Terror. During his time in the big chair, he imprisoned over 300,000 people suspected of crimes against the government. He purportedly slew as many as 40,000 of these prisoners.
Robespierre was elected to the head of the committee of public safety in 1793, at the start of the French Revolution. It was then that he began to tighten his suffocating grip on the people of France, silencing any voices of opposition that began to form against the new Republic. Robespierre’s ego started to get the better of him. And his increasing paranoia led him to find a good friend in the guillotine.
It is estimated that Maximilien sent almost 17,000 people to the guillotine, including former allies such as Georges Danton. Once Robespierre attempted to instill a national religion, in contradiction to his earlier-held beliefs, his people began to turn on him. In a twist of fate worthy of an Alanis Morissette song, Robespierre was made a few inches shorter by the guillotine in 1794.
9. Talaat Pasha
In the early 20th century, the Ottoman government began to see the rise of a new political body known as the Young Turks, led by Talaat Pasha, a political activist and noted critic of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The goal of the Young Turks was to establish a new secular order that could slowly siphon power from the sultan. The sultan would remain head of the state in title, but the Young Turks began to run the show behind the scenes. The start of World War I saw the Young Turks siding with Germany and Austria.
Many Armenians living under control of the Ottomans joined forces with the Russians, hopeful of achieving independence should Russia win the war. Because he wasn’t a terribly flexible or reasonable man, Pasha viewed this as open insubordination. And it enraged him. He forcefully relocated more than a million Armenians from Anatolia, Constantinople, and other provinces in Syria and Mesopotamia, which were sympathetic to Russian forces.
The relocation was not a pleasant one. Deportees who weren’t immediately eliminated were ordered onto death marches. Those who were displaced endured a year of hardship and brutality referred to as the Armenian Genocide, which claimed the lives of as many as 1.5 million people. Eventually, the Ottomans were forced to surrender to Allied forces. Pasha resigned his Grand Vizier position and fled with the Young Turks. He lived in exile until an assassin finally punched his ticket in 1921.
Nero was Roman emperor from 54 to 68 AD, the last ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, dominated Nero’s early life and decisions until he cast her off and had her killed five years into his reign. Nero’s rule is usually associated with tyranny and extravagance. Nero wreaked havoc in the Roman Empire.
He burnt cities, murdered thousands of people and every member in his family. People were stabbed, burned, boiled, crucified and impaled. The Great Fire of Rome was instigated by Nero to clear the way for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea. He seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire and burned them alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty.