The Cruelest Rulers In History (Who Weren't Hitler)

When we think of the evilest 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 Attila 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 (Attila 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, including a number of them whose cinematic depictions have only further entrenched their place in the cultural consciousness.

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  • Genghis Khan Wiped Out 11% Of The World's Population
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Yes, it's widely known that Genghis Khan was a horrific ruler, 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. 

    In one instance, a chap with whom he sought to conduct trade affronted the Khan by slaying his entire diplomatic party. In response, Khan sacked his entire city, taking hundreds of thousands of lives, and captured the impolite host. To teach this leader a lesson, Khan poured molten silver into his ears and eyes. 

    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 combat. This led to his wiping out an estimated 40 million people - or 11% of the world's population.

  • Tamerlane The Great (AKA Timur) Built Towers Out Of Enemies' Skulls

    Tamerlane The Great (AKA Timur) Built Towers Out Of Enemies' Skulls
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Tamerlane the Great, who also went by the name Timur, was a Turkic conqueror whose reign lasted roughly 40 years until his passing in 1405 CE. He believed he was a descendant 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, taking tens of thousands of lives. It's rumored that he slew 70,000 in Isfahan, 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 decaying skulls. 

    Last, it's important to point out some historians believe Tamerlane was well-versed in the ways of evil, often skinning alive those who refused to accept Islam. 

  • Vlad The Impaler (AKA Vlad Dracula) Was Made Famous For Impaling His Enemies
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Young Vlad was made a hostage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II in 1442 CE 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 slayings, disembowelment, and skinning and boiling people alive. However, his preferred method of torment 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 vicious. Between just two of these campaigns, he is believed to have impaled more than 43,000 people.

    Vlad perished as he lived: in combat. 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.

  • Qin Shi Huang Burned Books, Entombed Scholars, And Impoverished A Nation
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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 their end. 

    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 slew 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 perished of disease. And despite his efforts, his constant striving toward ultimate unification fell apart less than a decade after his passing in 210 BCE. He thought so highly of himself that he had laborers enshrine him in a massive tomb with 8,000 life-sized terra cotta warriors and horses to ride forth with the departed king, which was so well hidden, it wasn't found until 1974. 

  • Ivan IV of Russia, now commonly known as Ivan the Terrible, was bred amid a hotbed of political collusion and conspiracy. Before naming himself the first tsar of Russia in 1547, he witnessed conspiring boyars (nobles of the warrior class) rip power away from his mother (allegedly slain by poison). 

    He was equally vicious in foreign excursions. After invading Novgorod, he had the archbishop clad in a bear skin and then hunted by ravenous hounds. He also had people tied to sleighs before being run into freezing waters. 

    In his later years, Ivan became so erratic that he accidentally gave his heir brain damage after striking him in the heat of an argument, leaving him mentally inept but still in line for the throne. Another instance saw Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law, leading to her later miscarriage. 

    Ivan the Terrible passed of a heart attack while playing chess in 1584, leaving Russia to wade through the Time of Troubles that sparked after his heir's demise just a decade later. 

  • In order to "protect" the inhabitants of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Arab slavers and to more easily spread the word of the Christian God, Belgian King Leopold II carved out the world's first private colony, the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa in the mid-to-late 19th century. What ensued was decades of forced labor and beatings suffered by the local population.

    Initially, Leopold facilitated the dehumanizing ivory trade in his private colony, the horrors of which were spelled out by Joseph Conrad in his novella Heart of Darkness after he visited the Congo. Once the demand for rubber increased, due to the invention of cars and bicycles, Leopold learned that his personal swath of land was abundant in wild rubber trees. The locals were thus impressed via kidnappings by colonizers to work in the jungle. The colonizers took part in vicious rapes of native women, and to prove that they weren't "wasting" ammunition on animals or shooting strays, they would cut the hands off living enslaved people.

    For nearly a century, the atrocities perpetrated by Leopold's vicious greed were largely ignored by the Western world. It wasn't until about the turn of the 21st century that historians acknowledged that possibly as many as 10 million (though many now have lower estimates) Congolese were savagely murdered by the colonizers.