The most ruthless leaders throughout history
The cruelest, bloodiest and craziest leaders of the past.
Monarchs or bloodthirsty leaders, whether for their natural cruelty or madness, have been the focal point of fascination and controversy ever since humanity has had rulers. The combination of the divine, absolute power, and lack of contact with everyday reality make the idea of a king or queen of this caliber as fascinating as it is terrifying. Although it is unclear whether the characters mentioned below suffered from mental illness as defined by current standards, their lives were marked by a reputation that makes them the most ruthless leaders in history.
Men and women who used inhumane tactics to achieve the fulfillment of their political and military agendas.
Amongst these leaders: Caligula, Emperor of Rome (A.D. 12 - 41) and his inseparable horse Incitatus, to the tyrant Phalaris (6th century B.C.), to Nero, last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Attila, the King of the Huns, to Yang Guang or Genghis Khan, the Mongolian prince and conqueror who succeeded in founding the first Mongolian Empire, to Ludwig or Louis II of Bavaria and Otto of Bavaria - neither of the two very thorough, to Ivan IV the Terrible or Mary I of England (nicknamed 'Bloody Mary'), and more recent ones such as, Joseph Stalin - which transformed the USSR into a world superpower while becoming one of the greatest tyrants in history, Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Augusto Pinochet.
In fiction, kings and queens who succumb to madness are always striking. In reality, we have already proven that it is not so. It is not reassuring to think that a large part of the world is controlled by someone irrational and unstable. Unfortunately, history is filled with examples of leaders who brought misery to their people with their cruelty, bad governance, their lack of sense of reality or their disconcerting actions.
Here is a sample of said madness that changed the course of many world events.
In the 6th century B.C. it was famously known that Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigento (Sicily), was a leader who enjoyed "roasting" his enemies inside a bronze bull full of fire, known as the Bull of Phalaris. Phalaris was known for his great cruelty and with this contraption, the poor victims were locked up and cooked alive whilst their screams represented the roar of the bull. Ironically, Phalaris was burned alive in his bull in 554 AD.
The Roman emperor Caligula certainly holds a prominent role amongst the most ruthless characters in history (and he did not even reach the age of 28). Historians of his time already described him as a deeply unbalanced man. Caligula claimed he was Jupiter himself, so he wielded lightning like a sword wielder. He commanded to flog or even kill anyone who interrupted the performance of his favorite lover, the actor Mnester. He sent people from the audience to be eaten by lions in the arena of the Circus. Amongst his many follies, the emperor appointed his horse Incitatus as consul of Rome.
The Roman emperor Nero, who ruled between 54 and 68 A.D. His image playing the lyre while Rome burns, is a typical scene of tyranny. This emperor, who because of a dream decided to persecute and destroy all Christians, ordered hundreds of executions, including those of his own mother and half-brother. Nero was forced to commit suicide on 9 June 1968 after a coup d'état. He was 30 years old.
The King of the Huns was one of those men who employed ruthless tactics to accomplish his political and military goals. He was a fearsome warlord, incredibly capricious, who came to dominate from Central Europe to the Black Sea, and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. His fierceness in his deeds earned him the nickname 'The Scourge of God'. The stories state that wherever his horse went, the grass stopped growing. In the middle of the fifth century he became the last king of the Hungarian empire, a bloodthirsty warrior, who managed to spread his own cruelty to the troops. They massacred and plundered graves everywhere. Even the Roman Empire feared him.
Yang Guang was a Chinese emperor of the Sui dynasty, the second and last emperor of this dynasty. He ruled from 604 to 618 and after winning the throne by murdering his father, he launched a series of skilful military campaigns in which soldiers, who were forcibly recruited peasants, died by the thousands. Among his pharaonic ideas were the construction of the 2,000-kilometre-long Grand Sui Canal, or the reconstruction of the Great Wall of China, where several million people also died. He is considered one of the worst emperors China has ever had. He was murdered by members of his own entourage.
Genghis Khan was the founder of the first Mongolian Empire. He was a charismatic and bloodthirsty leader capable of exterminating entire populations, as he did with the 700,000 inhabitants of Merv in Persia. A conqueror who made his way by being both a brilliant strategist and a soulless leader. He massacred entire cities, attributing more than two million deaths to the Mongolian leader’s army.
Ibrahim I was sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1640 to 1648. Known as "Ibrahim the Mad", he led his empire to ruin. He locked up the possible heirs to the throne who could overshadow him, and due to the rumour that some of his wives might be lying with other men, he ordered the drowning of his entire harem: 280 women in all.
John I of England (1166 - 1216), better known as John 'without land', also had the nickname 'The Possessed'. He was one of the most cowardly and self-conscious rulers in history. After the death of the great Ricardo Corazón de León, this successor is remembered only for the mistreatment he offered his subjects - who paid with life for the king’s deplorable and useless personality - as well as his personal vendettas and palatial intrigues.
Vlad Tepes or Vlad ‘The Impaler' is the historical character on which the legend of Count Dracula is based. His cruelty, as prince of Wallachia (Romania) became so infamous that he would eventually become an immortal symbol of the horror genre. Although impalement was his favorite amusement, hence his nickname, he also used other methods of torture such as strangulation, the removal of eyes with hooks, the amputation of limbs, nose and ears, or castration. Vlad The Impaler died in December 1476.
Henry VIII (1491 - 1547), he was the chief and founder of the English Anglican Church, but he essentially went down in history as a despot, brutal and heartless man: he even beheaded two of his six wives, amongst others.
Ivan IV, nicknamed Ivan the Terrible (1530 - 1584) was a Russian czar who lost his parents when he was very young and suffered torture from the Russian government. These tortures made him a fearsome person later in life. He fed his dogs to the head of government, slaughtered his people, eliminated the main landlord families, beat his pregnant daughter, killed his son in a fit of rage... his violent actions were countless. He was deranged and extraordinarily authoritarian, ruling 16th-century Russia with an iron fist, killing friends and enemies no matter what the motive. He died as a result of treating his syphilis with mercury.
Nicknamed 'Bloody Mary', Mary I of England was the only descendant of Henry VIII. After establishing Catholicism, because she wanted to restore obedience to Rome in her country, she burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake: it was four years of persecution and burning at the stake of the leaders of English Protestantism.
We could certainly say that Ranavalona I was the craziest queen ever. Queen of Madagascar of the Merina dynasty, she won the throne in 1828 after killing all the descendants of her husband, in order to become the sole heir. She drove out foreigners, commanded armies against Christians, and executed anyone who was or professed their faith in public, creating torture techniques never seen before, because, apparently, she liked to perform the most macabre experiments.
This king "founded" The Free State of the Congo as his private colony, in which he introduced a system of forced labor to the Congolese, forcing them to work as slaves and extract ivory and rubber, with which he managed to make a great fortune out of this 'particular enclosure' of tyranny. Thanks to his ruthless measures, millions of people died of hunger and the population was reduced by 50% because it separated men and women in the 'Congo Free State'.
The so-called 'mad king' (not Aerys II Targaryen), was a famous homosexual regent who died in strange circumstances. His eccentric life and melancholic personality led him to be incapable to rule. He was an antibelicist with an unstable temperament, who even fought a monumental fight with his younger brother, whom he was about to strangle.
Otto of Bavaria (1848 - 1916) was the younger brother and successor of the, as we have seen, not very thorough Louis II. Otto was also in poor mental health, so he was confined to a padded room so that he would not hit his head against the wall, as it was one of his repeated obsessions. Later he believed himself to be a dog, so he barked and ate in a bowl on the ground. Louis and Otto were the last two Bavarian monarchs.
Joseph Stalin was the ruler of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. Socialism became one of the most irrational dictators of the 20th century. It is true that it led the USSR to become a great world power but at the cost of becoming one of the greatest tyrants in history: apart from exile and subsequently killing Trotsky, he expelled and exterminated people if he encountered any petty opposition to their orders. It established a police regime in the absence of freedom for citizens.
This sickly psychopath and megalomaniac transformed the world in which we live, taking with him more than 21 million victims, in Europe and the whole world. Ruler of Germany from 1939 to 1945, his despicable actions included the genocide of millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
General Amin of Uganda ruled ruthlessly for eight years, during which some 300,000 civilians were massacred. A great admirer of Hitler, he led his country into economic decline, as he invested everything possible in the army. It is said that he practiced cannibalism with some of the dissidents to his regime or served them as an appetizer to his crocodiles.
Mussolini founded the Fascist Party of Italy, creating with the war veterans the so-called "blackshirts", military units of extreme violence that killed hundreds of Italian civilians (400,000 soldiers died for it). 'The Duce' survived several assassination attempts and is remembered for forming in 1936 an alliance with the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, introducing the same anti-Semitic policies in Italy and bombing Barcelona and other republican areas during the Spanish civil war. He was shot dead by anti-fascists and hung upside down in a square in Milan.
Bokassa was one of the greatest tyrants to ever pass through Africa. After a military career in Free France during World War II, he returned to his country, seizing power and becoming king of the country in a ceremony full of pomp. He was known as the 'diamond ogre' and his reign was based on cruel torture that included cannibalism on his part. Bokassa I died of a heart attack on 3 November 1996.
This communist leader is responsible for the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s followers claim that thanks to his leadership, China grew and modernized, becoming a great power. The reality is that their initiatives led to the deaths of up to 40 million people as a result of forced labour, hunger and executions in opposition to the regime.
Pol Pot is the genocide of Cambodia. The former Prime Minister of Cambodia and his communist movement aimed to create an agrarian utopia by the compulsory relocation of any member of society: some people went to the countryside to work as farmers (including doctors, teachers... especially the more intellectual classes) and others were assigned to 'special centres' where they were tortured and killed. Up to two million Cambodians died from torture, hunger or overwork in just four years of dictatorship.
General Francisco Franco overthrew the Second Republic in Spain (which was elected democratically though somewhat illegitimately) during the 1930s thanks to his fascist alliances with Germany and Italy. Under the dictatorship imposed by Franco, many cultural and political figures fled the country; those who remained were executed. He served as Head of State from 1936 until his death in 1975 and during this repressive and tortuous period, unbearable prison sentences and death sentences against political opponents and criminals were imposed, more than 150,000 victims were counted.
Pinochet led Chile’s military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990, known as the Military Regime. He is remembered as a ruthless dictator whose military regime killed more than 3,000 political opponents, also tortured many and forced thousands more into exile. Pinochet died in 2006, leaving, according to official figures, 40,018 victims of human rights abuses during the regime and 3,065 murdered or disappeared.
Gilles de Rais, French Marshal, had the hobby of torturing children in his castle. The so-called 'child killer' lured the younger ones into his castle by offering them work. With this offer, he locked them up, practicing all kinds of torture, sexual abuse, maltreatment, until they died.
He fought in the final years of the Hundred Years' War with Joan of Arc and died on October 26, 1440.