When we think of the most evil rulers in history, names like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Benito Mussolini rush to mind. But it's important to remember that brutality existed in rulers well before the 1930s.
Others, like Atila the Hun or Chinese Empress Wu, may seem like obvious choices. But, after looking deeper at the effects of their rule and how they were perceived by those they reigned over, it becomes clear that they're not the worst rulers in history. Instead, they suffered from then-contemporary historians' ire (Atila, because he wasn't Roman, and Wu, because she was a woman).
So it's time to focus instead on those despots who were truly the cruelest rulers in history, many of whom are less known, though there will definitely be a few names on this list that ring a bell.
Yes, it's ubiquitously known that Genghis Khan was a horrific ruler, that he sacked entire cities and was ruthless in his executions, all on his way to amass the largest empire the world had ever seen. But the sheer brutality of his rule is often softened by such generalizations.
Khan was creative in how he would execute his enemies, especially when it came to nobles. Because he believed he couldn't spill their blood, he would snap their necks or choke them out. But that was rare. More popular was piling them under a large board on top of which he and his warriors would party until each noble had been crushed to death.
In one instance, a chap with whom he sought to conduct trade affronted the Khan by killing his entire diplomatic party. In response, Khan sacked his entire city, killing hundred of thousands, and captured the impolite host. To teach this leader a lesson, Khan poured molten silver into his ears and eyes (remind you of anything from Game of Thrones?).
Over the course of his empire-building career, Khan showed no mercy to his enemies, often completely wiping out entire cities or using hostages as human shields in battles. This led to wiping out an estimated 40 million people - or 11 percent of the world's population - between 1206 and his death in 1227.
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Tamerlane the Great, who also went by the name Timur, was a Turkic conquerer whose reign lasted roughly 40 years, until his death in 1405. He believed he was a descendent of Genghis Khan and sought to emulate his forebear with an empire of his own, which ended up stretching from Russia to India and the Mediterranean region.
Like Genghis Khan, Tamerlane was unflinching in his axiom of "no mercy." He annihilated whole cites, leaving tens of thousands dead. It's rumored that he killed 70,000 in Ifshahan, 20,000 at Aleppo, and 70,000 in Tikrit. He would sneak spies into opposing camps to tell of his exploits - such as burning down a mosque full of people in Damascus - to sow seeds of fear.
In Baghdad, it's believed he beheaded 90,000 people and built more than 100 towers out of the rotting skulls. Also significant was his foray into India, where he repeatedly decimated 100,000 people at a time, even after some cities offered to unconditionally surrender.
Last, it's important to point out that this wasn't your everyday quick-death slaughter. Some historians point out that Tamerlane was well versed in the ways of torture, often skinning alive those who refused to accept Islam.
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Young Vlad was made a hostage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II in 1442 to ensure his father's acquiescence to the throne. On his way back to his father, Vlad learned of his assassination at the hands of boyars (nobles of the warrior class), leaving Vlad no other choice but to adopt the official title of Vlad III Dracula ("Son of Dracul") and embark on a series of campaigns against the Ottoman overlords.
Though remembered as a hero in Walachian (present day Romanian) folklore, his tactics against his enemies comprised night raids, mass murder, disembowelment, and skinning and boiling victims alive. However, his by-far preferred method of torture was impalement, earning him the moniker Vlad the Impaler.
His life was punctuated by a series of campaigns, some of which were more successful than others, though each was equally brutal. Between just two of these campaigns, he is believed to have impaled more than 43,000 people.
Vlad died as he lived: in battle. Though gone, he was not forgotten. Folklore has kept rumors of his sadistic practices alive, such as dining on impaled bodies and using their blood as a dip for his bread. In fact, many historians believe that he served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula.
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Qin Shi Huang is credited with having created the first unified Chinese empire (Qin dynasty, 221-207 BCE), but he was able to do so only through erratic ruling, the dismantling of any semblance of an education system, and working nearly his entire population to death.
Huang seized power in 221 BCE and strictly followed seven principles, some of which advocated severe punishment, speaking in opposites and acting in contraries, and issuing unfathomable orders. He was unquestionably paranoid about the abilities of the educated and therefore burned books of inestimable value. He buried alive 460 Confucian scholars in just one year, allegedly because they were unable to make him immortal.
In trying to establish an elaborate transportation system and build a wall to keep out enemies (a precursor to the Great Wall of China), Huang relocated approximately 120,000 families. He established a peasant class, declaring all to be equal under one law, then taxed them heavily. This effectively abolished the preceding ruling elite.
Because of the heavy taxes and strict overseeing of hard labor for the transportation and wall system, thousands were overworked, starved, or died of disease. And, despite his efforts, his constant striving toward ultimate unification fell apart less than a decade after his death in 210 BCE. He thought so highly of himself that he had laborers enshrine him in a massive tomb with 6,000 life-sized terra cotta warriors and horses to ride forth with the dead king, which was so well hidden, it wasn't found until 1974.see more on Qin Shi Huang