The unholy trinity of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, are the modern era’s most brutal and deadly rulers. Unfortunately, history shows that brutal rulers are one of the few things that humanity has never lacked. Some, such as Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, were warlords and great conquerors who brutalized the recently vanquished. Others were too timid to go to war, made no conquests whatsoever, and simply brutalized their own people at home. Below are thirty things about some of history’s most brutal rulers.
30. A Brutal King Who Kept His Enemies Close – Real Close
Ever heard the saying “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer“? Well, King Ferdinand I of Naples (1424 – 1494), who ruled from 1458 until his death, took that line of reasoning, and ran with it to irrational extremes. By all accounts, Ferdinand was a capable ruler who brought peace and prosperity to his realm. Through diplomacy and strategic marriages, he created a dense network of interlocking friendships and alliances with other sovereigns. It made him so influential, that he was nicknamed “The Judge of Italy”. He was also a generous patron of the arts, and was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance. That was the good side of Ferdinand.
On the bad side, politics in Italy back then was not a professional fit for the squeamish. The Italian Peninsula was a jumble of various small states and independent cities, teetering on the brink of anarchy as rival aristocratic families fiercely competed for power and prestige. Betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, and wars were a commonplace, in what amounted to a real-life version of Game of Thrones, minus the dragons. Ferdinand had a brutal side that allowed him to thrive in such an environment. Remember that part about keeping enemies close? As seen below, after he disposed of his enemies, Ferdinand kept their corpses on exhibit in what came to be known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
29. You Did Not Want to Accept an Invitation from Ferdinand I of Naples
Ferdinand I of Naples was not the forgiving sort. As one historian put it: “his pleasures were of two kinds: he liked to have his opponents near him, either alive in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime“. In 1465, Ferdinand defeated a rebellion by his barons. In the guise of forgiveness, he invited several former foes and their families to a celebration, then arrested them when they showed up. Some were locked up for decades, and others were exterminated.
The victims included one who fell to his death after Ferdinand pushed him out of a window. One might think that afterward, nobody who had ever angered Ferdinand would accept an invitation from him. If so, one would be wrong. On another occasion, some who had offended Ferdinand attended a wedding celebration at the king’s residence, the Castel Nuovo. At the height of the merriment, they were suddenly arrested, and whisked to the dungeons for torture, a death sentence at a quick trial, and execution. As seen below, the brutal king liked to put his dead enemies on display.
Ferdinand I of Naples was not satisfied with simply offing his enemies. He wanted to turn them and their fates into public examples and cautionary lessons to deter others from even thinking about betrayal. After he had them “taken care of”, the king of Naples ordered that the bodies of his enemies be mummified. He then put them on display in an exhibit hall in the Castel Nouvo, which he referred to as his “Black Museum”, and which came to be commonly known as the “Museum of Mummies“.
As a contemporary historian described the exhibit: “these dried cadavers were displayed, pickled with herbs, a frightful sight, in the dress they wore when alive and with the same ornaments, so that by this terrible example of tyranny, those who did not wish to be similarly served might be properly afraid“. Ferdinand liked to conduct personal tours of his macabre museum, which often served as an effective deterrent to those contemplating treason. To mix things up and keep them interesting, the king’s mummified enemies were sometimes propped up in mock banquets.
Chin Shi Huang Di (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor of Chin”, started off as king of the Chinese state of Chin – one of several rival kingdoms in China’s Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, wrested power from the regents and courtiers who had governed during his minority. The young monarch then consolidated his power with a massacre of palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath. He pushed back the northern barbarians, defeated and conquered all other Chinese states by 221 BC, and consolidated them under his rule.
He then declared himself the First Emperor of China. Chin Shi Huang pulled off the impressive task of ending the chaotic feudalism that had prevailed in China for over five centuries. In its place was now a unified, peaceful, and efficiently governed centralized state. Unification, pacification, and efficiency, came at a high price, however: tyranny and great oppression. As a result, despite Chin Shi Huang’s key role in China’s foundation, he was greatly abhorred by most Chinese because of his brutal behavior.
Chin Shi Huang’s most trusted and influential official was his minister of justice, Li Ssu. In addition to being a bureaucrat, Li Ssu was also a philosopher who followed a school of thought known as “Legalism”. It advocated strict laws and draconian punishments for even petty crimes. As Li Ssu put it: “If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws“. Such brutal logic was music to the ears of the brutal First Emperor. Criticism of the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform their neighbors. Then, with unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Chin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal and launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor.
One such project had 700,000 laborers toil on the First Emperor’s tomb for thirty years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life-size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keeping the northern barbarians out, and keeping the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s onerous taxation and oppressive rule, in.
25. A Departure from Chinese Reverence for Scholars
The Warring States period had been a period of chaos. However, it had also been a golden age of Chinese philosophy and free-thinking. The centuries before China’s unification in 221 BC came to be known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought”. It was an era in which various philosophies, such as Confucianism and Taoism, emerged and were freely debated. The First Emperor brought that to an end by banning all schools of thoughts, except Legalism. He saw his new state as a radical break from the past. To emphasize that break, as well as to keep his subjects from pining for bygone days, he ordered that all history books in China be burned.
Chin Shi Huang also ordered the burning of books on philosophy, and every other subject except for agriculture, science, and magic. When scholars protested, they discovered just how brutal he could get. Until then, intellectuals and scholars had been revered figures, highly respected by China’s rulers. Chin Shi Huang was cut from a different cloth: he ordered 460 scholars buried alive. What the First Emperor was most interested in was immortality through a “Life Elixir“, but his quest for immortality backfired. It was not only that all his efforts to find a Life Elixir failed, as they were bound to do. It was that those insane attempts at living forever did the opposite, and shortened the life of China’s First Emperor.
In pursuit of immortality, Chin Shi Huang solicited the advice and assistance of numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One of them gave the First Emperor mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Chin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. Chin Shi Huang swallowed mercury every day, gradually poisoned himself, and gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers and spent much of his time listening to songs about “Pure Beings”.
Many of the First Emperor’s crazier and more brutal decisions, such as the burial of scholars and burning of books, were probably caused by the mercury pills. Rather than prolong his life, Chin Shi Huang gave himself a nasty dose of mercury poisoning. It made him literally crazy, and finished him off at the relatively young age of 49. It happened during one of his tours of the provinces, when he dropped dead inside his spacious imperial carriage – a miniature house on wheels – on September 10th, 210 BC.
23. Ottoman Sultans Were Brutal Towards Their Own Kin
Many kingdoms collapsed into chaos, and many ruling dynasties vanished into the dustbin of history because of infighting by royal siblings competing for the throne. The early Ottoman Turks tackled that problem head-on, with one of the most brutal and ruthless solutions possible. As soon as a new Ottoman Sultan ascended the throne, he immediately executed all his brothers. The prospects of deadly rivalries and civil wars were thus eliminated by the simple expedient of eliminating all potential male claimants to the throne.
The early Ottomans had no clear-cut rules of succession. When princes reached puberty, their father the Sultan sent them out to govern a province. There, they would establish a power base of ambitious followers, eager to prosper by urging their royal governor to make a bid for the throne upon his father’s death. Thus, the death of a sultan was usually followed by a civil war between his sons, and a new sultan’s early reign was often marked by the revolts of envious brothers seeking to replace him. Eventually, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror enacted a Law of Governance that stated in relevant part: “Any of my sons who ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people. The majority of the ulema [Muslim scholars] approve this; let action be taken accordingly“.
Mehmed II’s successors usually heeded his advice to maintain the realm’s stability by preemptively executing their brothers as soon as they ascended the throne. It was a cruel expedient, but it worked. For the next two centuries, the Ottoman Empire was remarkably stable and free of infighting and civil wars when compared to its contemporaries. However, although the system worked, many consciences were bothered by the extermination of innocent royal siblings at the start of each reign. Those misgivings reached a peak when Sultan Mehmed III (reigned 1595 – 1603) inaugurated his reign by strangling to death his nineteen brothers, some of them mere infants. It was said that “the Empire wept” as a long line of child-sized coffins exited the palace in a grand procession the next day.
Eventually, a reaction set in against the brutal tradition of fratricide, and a new tradition took its place. Instead of new sultans disposing of their brothers when they ascended the throne, they simply locked them up. Thus was born the system of the Ottoman Kafes, or “Cage”, whereby Sultans set up a secluded part of their royal Harem as a detention center for their brothers. There, potential rivals were kept under house arrest, under surveillance by palace guards and isolated from the outside world to prevent intrigues and plots. Life in the Kafes could be rough, but for those living in it, the very fact that they were still living at all meant that it beat the alternative.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Ottoman Sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623 – 1640) did not do away with his brothers when he ascended the throne. Instead, he locked them up inside his Harem in the Kafes, or “Cage”. The Kafes system was set up as a more merciful alternative to how prior generations of Ottoman sultans had dealt with their brothers. However, it might not have been much mercy in Murad’s case. All things considered, many of his imprisoned siblings might have wished that Murad had simply gone ahead and executed them at the start of his reign. For Murad IV was a brutal figure who combined paranoia with sadism.
He constantly suspected his captive brothers of plotting against him, and constantly tried to entrap them into saying any careless old thing that could validate his suspicions. Murad sent seemingly sympathetic guards or servants to try and draw out this or that imprisoned brother into uttering anything that could even remotely be interpreted as treasonous. Any slip of the tongue could result in an imprisoned sibling getting accused of plotting against the Sultan, who was just itching for an excuse to execute his brothers. That eagerness to shed blood was no surprise, considering that Murad’s “entertainment” included shooting arrows to take care of any unwary fishermen whose boats drifted to close to his seaside palace.
Saddam Hussein (1937 – 2006), also known as “The Butcher of Baghdad“, ruled Iraq from 1979 until his ouster in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. His years in power were marked by extreme brutality, oppression, and corruption at home, plus costly and failed wars against his neighbors. In a variety of purges and genocides against domestic opponents, real or suspected, at least a quarter of a million Iraqis were exterminated by Saddam’s security services. Hundreds of thousands more Iraqis did not make it through Saddam’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait.
However, the brutal Iraqi tyrant seems to have had a maudlin streak. When not engaged in the wholesale extermination of his people or getting them into wars, Saddam liked to write steamy romance novels. During his years in power, Saddam wrote at least four novels, and a number of poems and poetry collections. Of his novels, Zabibah and the King is the best known, and the most widely lampooned – it was adapted by Sacha Baron Cohen’s in his 2012 comedy, The Dictator.
Zabibah and the King, a convoluted love story, was written in 2000, and set in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in the seventh or eighth century AD. The main characters are Zabibah, a beautiful commoner; her perverted and cruel husband; and a powerful and handsome ruler named Hussein. Each night, the stunningly beautiful and brilliant Zabibah is summoned to Hussein’s palace. Borrowing from Arabian Nights, she fobs him off of feasting on her succulent body by giving long political speeches. Inevitably, Hussein’s attention wanders from Zabibah’s mind to her hot body, and he develops an unquenchable lust for her.
Her perverted husband, fond of orgies and money and deviant explicit practices, is unhappy with the developing relationship between his wife and King Hussein. So hubby disguises himself and assaults Zabibah as she walks home from the palace one night. It was a means of shaming her that makes sense within the cultural context of Iraqi tribal society and honor code. Hussein however loves Zabibah too much to let the shame destroy the romance. So he goes after the perpetrator. After a series of adventures, Zabibah leads an army, is mortally wounded in battle, and dies while proclaiming Arab nationalism with her last breath. Hussein goes on to capture and exterminate the perpetrator, and thus avenges Zabibah’s honor.
18. Iraqi Critics’ Reaction to Saddam Hussein’s Novel Was Unsurprising
Saddam Hussein was not exactly what one would call a subtle writer. Zabibah and the King was intended as a ham-fisted allegory, with the hints driven home as if by a sledgehammer. Zabibah represents the Iraqi people. The husband represents the US. The assault represents America’s ouster of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and is dated January 17th – the same date as the commencement of Operation Desert Storm. The powerful and heroic King Hussein represents Saddam Hussein.
Unsurprisingly, no Iraqi critic dared criticize a novel that, despite a token effort at a pseudonym, everybody knew was written by the country’s brutal dictator. They lauded Zabibah and the King to the skies, showered it with praise, and declared that it was a world-class literary breakthrough. The novel became a domestic best seller, and over a million copies flew off the shelves. Saddam’s sycophants in the Iraqi Ministry of Information turned the novel into a twenty-part television series, that aired on and was frequently rerun on Iraqi TV. A musical was produced as well.
Muammar al Qaddafi (1942 – 2011) was the self-declared “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamihirya”. As a young army colonel, he overthrew the Libyan monarchy in a 1969 military coup. He then became the country’s brutal dictator until his overthrow and death in a popular uprising in 2011. Called the “the mad dog of the Middle East” by US President Ronald Reagan, just before sending jets to bomb him, Qaddafi’s 42-year reign was marked by dramatic twists and turns. He morphed from socialism to Islamic fundamentalism. Once a key sponsor of terrorism, he became an avid cooperator in the Global War on Terror. He started off as an Arab nationalist, only to eventually revile Arabs and turn to African nationalism instead.
Qaddafi saw himself as a messiah. He modeled himself on Chairman Mao, and published The Little Green Book, which contained a political philosophy labeled The Third International Theory. A cockamamie mix of direct democracy, Arab and African nationalism, and Islamic socialism, it was intended as an alternative to capitalism and communism. Qaddafi’s book became required reading for Libyans, and it formed the theoretical basis of the country’s government. In reality, Libya was a kleptocratic dictatorship, governed on the basis of nepotism to enrich Qaddafi’s family and his tribe. It had a grossly mismanaged economy that survived only because of abundant oil and gas.
A creepy womanizer, Muammar al Qaddafi often hit on female reporters. He frequently met them for interviews in bathrobes or in his underwear. He became obsessed with former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and referred to her as his “darling black African woman“. He showered her during a visit to Tripoli with $212,000 worth of gifts, including a lute and a locket with his picture inside. He also saw himself as a fashion icon, and to that end cultivated an odd collection of ensembles and sartorial choices that made him modern history’s most bizarrely dressed ruler. Changing in and out of silly uniforms multiple times a day, he was the closest real-life depiction of a James Bond villain. The cartoonish villain look was further enhanced by his all-virgin female bodyguard, officially named the “Revolutionary Nuns“, but known more commonly as the Amazonian Guard.
Beneath the buffoonish look and cuckoo philosophy, however, was a brutal dictator. Qaddafi’s regime engaged in massive repression, torture, extermination of individuals, and human rights violations. Among his vices was the habit of ordering women kidnapped off the street – including teenaged girls – and taken to one of his many palaces. At least one of his victims was kept imprisoned in his basement for six years. He forced her to watch pornography while snorting cocaine with him, and repeatedly assaulted her, urinated on her, and subjected her to sundry perversions. He was finally overthrown in a revolt in 2011 and captured by rebels, who tortured and likely explicitly assaulted Qaddafi before executing him.
Of Russia’s many brutal rulers, few – with the possible exception of Stalin – were more brutal than Tsar Ivan IV. Better known as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), he was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547. That year, he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias”, which became the title of Russian monarch from then on. He created a centralized government and was a grand conqueror who finally overthrew the last remnants of Mongol subjugation beneath which Russia had groaned for centuries.
Ivan then proceeded to subjugate the neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. All of that was good and laudable from a Russian perspective. On the other hand, however, Ivan was an insanely cruel despot, who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror. As seen below, his long list of atrocities included the massacre of entire cities, and the implementation of a state policy that revolved around mass repression. In a fit of rage, he even personally disposed of his own son.
14. As a Child, This Tyrant Used to Torture Small Animals
Ivan the Terrible ascended the throne of the Grand Duchy of Moscow when he was three years old, and his mother governed as regent in his name. However, she died when Ivan was seven, and a power struggle erupted between rival boyars, or Russian nobles, in which the child Ivan was left defenseless. He was exploited and tormented by boyars who mistreated and abused him in his own palace. That made him bitter, and bitterness gave way to insanity. Before long, he began to vent his frustrations by torturing small animals.
By the time he took personal control of the government, Ivan was a paranoid, resentful, and angry young man. He distrusted people in general, and detested the boyar class in particular. So he instituted a system known as the oprichnina in the 1560s that amounted to a reign of terror. It augured the absolute monarchy that was to be Russia’s hallmark for centuries to come. With a special police force, the Oprichniki, Ivan kicked off a wave of brutal persecutions that targeted the boyars, and spread from there in ever greater ripples that soon covered all his lands.
Ivan the Terrible’s most infamous atrocity occurred in Novgorod. In 1570, when that city defied him, he marched on it in the dead of winter, and after seizing it, indulged in violent depravity. He started off with the clergy, whom he rounded up and ordered flogged from dawn until dusk, for days on end, until they each paid a 20 ruble fine. Hundreds died, and afterward, he ordered the survivors executed. The population fared no better; he ordered the torture of leading citizens along with their families. Men were executed, and women and children were bound and thrown into a nearby river. There, they were trapped under the ice as soldiers patrolled the area on foot, with hooks and spears to push down any who surfaced. By the time Ivan was finally sated, over 60,000 had perished.
Even his own family was not spared Ivan’s fits of uncontrollable rage. In 1581, he assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law when he saw her wearing clothes that he deemed too skimpy, and caused her to miscarry. When his son and heir angrily berated him for the brutal attack on his wife, Ivan the Terrible smashed his head in with his scepter. The result was a fatal wound from which the Tsar’s son died a few days later. He followed him three years later, and died from a stroke while playing chess.
Attila the Hun (406 – 453), a brutal nomadic warlord, ruled a multi-tribal empire dominated by the Huns, that spanned Eastern and Central Europe. During his reign, 434 – 453, he earned the moniker “The Scourge of God”, as he terrified the civilized world. He attacked Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, and extorted vast sums of gold from Constantinople. He next invaded Gaul and was beaten back, recoiled, then struck into Italy the following year, before he finally drank himself to death on his wedding night.
Attila was born in the Hungarian Steppe in 406 into the Hun royal family, and inherited the crown jointly with his brother Bleda in 434. The brothers were challenged early on but crushed the opposition. When their surviving enemies fled to the Roman Empire, the brothers invaded. They forced the Romans to surrender the fugitives, and agree to an annual tribute of 230 kilograms of gold. Attila and Bleda then turned their attention to the Persian Empire, which they invaded and plundered for years before they were beaten. So then they returned their attention to Europe.
In 440, Attila and Bleda crossed the Danube, proceeded to plunder the Balkans, and destroyed two Roman armies while they were at it. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and the brothers extorted from him a new treaty that paid 2000 gold kilograms upfront, plus an annual tribute of 700 gold kgs. Soon thereafter, Attila consolidated power by “unaliving” his brother, and became the sole ruler. In 447, he returned to the Balkans and ravaged them until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling. The next chapter in Attila’s brutal tale began in 450, when the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape an undesired betrothal by begging Attila’s help.
Along with her message, she sent him her engagement ring. Attila interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, and visited his customary brutal devastation, before he was finally defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451. The next year, he invaded Italy, and sacked and plundered as he advanced down the peninsula, before he was persuaded by the pope to withdraw. He planned to attack Constantinople again in 453, but his rampage finally ended that year. He drank himself into a stupor while celebrating his wedding to a new wife, suffered a nosebleed, and choked to death on his own blood.
10. A Brutal Legacy Remembered in the Middle East to This Day
Mongol general and ruler Hulegu (1217 – 1265) was a grandson of the great conqueror Genghis Khan, and a younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai. He expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with brutal savagery that remains seared in the region’s memory to this day. Among other things, Hulegu destroyed Baghdad and extinguished the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, and menaced Egypt and the surviving Crusader states. He also destroyed medieval Persian culture, and founded the Ilkhanate, a precursor of modern Iran.
In 1251, Hulegu’s brother, the Grand Khan Mongke, recognized him as ruler of the Ilkhanate in Persia, and ordered him to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world. As a preliminary, Hulegu attacked and seized the mountain fortress of the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect led by a mystic known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”. The Assassins’ leader brainwashed young men by claiming that he controlled the keys to paradise. He “proved” it through a process that began with getting recruits high on hashish, and setting them loose in a beautiful garden full of gorgeous women.
9. The Mongol General Who Ended a Cult That Had Terrorized the Middle East for Generations
When the Assassin recruits came down from the high and woke up, they were back in regular and austere surroundings. They were told that they had been in paradise, and that the only way to return was to die while assassinating the Old Man of the Mountain. It proved highly effective. The Assassins, with no shortage of horny young men high on hash and desperate to die while ending his enemies so they could return to paradise, terrorized the Middle East for generations. Their reign of terror ended when Hulegu extinguished the cult.
Hulegu then turned to the Abbasid Caliphate, and when the Caliph refused to submit, the Mongol general invaded and besieged him in Baghdad. He captured the city in 1258 and destroyed it along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library of Baghdad, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants. The Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled into a carpet, which was then trampled by Mongol horses that were ridden over it. That brutal act ended the Abbasids, and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate.
8. It Took Another Mongol To Stop Hulegu’s Brutal Rampage
Next on Hulegu’s list was Syria, which he conquered, and in the process, ended the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin. He then set his eyes on Egypt, but on the eve of invasion, he received word that his brother Mongke had died. As a potential successor, Hulegu returned to Mongolia to make his claim for the throne. In his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. It was the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and it broke the spell of Mongol invincibility.
As it turned out, Hulegu might as well have stayed in the Middle East. He was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut. However, he ended up in a war with a cousin, Berke, who ruled the Mongols who had conquered Russia and Eastern Europe, known as the Golden Horde. Berke had converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulegu’s brutal rampage in the Muslim world. The war with Berke was Hulegu’s main focus for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1265.
Female rulers can be just as brutal as male ones – just ask the people of Madagascar about Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861). That monarch, who had a tongue twister of a birth name, Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled Madagascar from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel“, she was a tyrant at best, or a certifiably insane madwoman at worst. Whatever her deal was, Ranavalona’s 33 year reign was an utter disaster for the people of Madagascar. Between evil deeds such as massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. It is estimated that half the population of Madagascar died, either directly according to her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.
Ranavlona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s king Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they went for ridiculously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. To show his appreciation, the king selected the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless and produced no issue. When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she organized a coup, seized power, and proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. She then massacred all potential rival claimants to the throne. It was a bloody start to what proved to be a bloody reign.
Ranavalona showed her brutal side at the very start of her reign: she “unalived” every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she had them strangled, or locked in a cell and starved to death. Her throne was secured against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to encroachments from European colonial powers, and exterminated or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France and banned Christianity. She also isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom. Domestically, in lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal: the accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not and were accordingly executed.
Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – performed labor in lieu of high taxes they could not afford to pay. These de facto slaves were used to build houses and palaces, clear lands and maintain roads, carry nobles and royal dependents in litters, serve in Ranavalona’s army, and carry any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and died in droves. In the meantime, the British and French were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, Ranavalona beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.
Queen Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into the parts of Madagascar that defied her or expressed anything less than enthusiasm for her governance. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies, and devastated regions resistant to her rule. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements viewed as disloyal. Those spared from the mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the queen’s domain, to toil the rest of their lives away on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized. The percentage of slaves rose to one-third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two-thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.
Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines caused by Ranavalona’s brutal scorched earth policies and heavy-handed repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. In just a six-year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population is estimated to have declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population took a nosedive from about 750,000 in 1829, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. These are genocide-level figures, comparable to those inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a 33-year reign, she died in her sleep of natural causes, at age 83.
Speaking of Pol Pot, that Cambodian communist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power in 1975. As depicted in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, Cambodia was then transformed into a nightmarish dystopia. Pol Pot and his fanatical followers carried out a genocide that eliminated a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In an insane attempt at social engineering, the cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants, to toil on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million people were exterminated or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge was driven from power in 1979.
Pol Pot’s background gave little to indicate just how much of a monster he would become. Born Saloth Sar into a prosperous family, he had received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, where he joined the French Communist Party. Pol Pot eventually returned to Cambodia, where he became a college professor who frequently spoke about kindness and humanity. He was beloved by his students, who remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students followed him into the Khmer Rouge, and became the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.
If the question of who was history’s most brutal ruler was asked, many would assume it must have been Genghis Khan. However, while Genghis is one of history’s scariest people, he was not as lethal as an even deadlier medieval warrior: Tamerlane (1336 – 1405). Byname Timur Link, which means “Timur the Lame” in Turkish, Tamerlane was the last of the great Eurasian Steppe conquerors to terrify the civilized world with widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his wide-ranging rampage, from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between. Tamerlane is estimated to have exterminated about 17 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. That would be equivalent to almost 400 million people in 2022.
A Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, Tamerlane was born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan. It was ruled by Genghis’ descendants at the time, and Tamerlane’s rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was executed by rivals, and that triggered a struggle for power. When the dust settled, Tamerlane had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Tamerlane ruled.
2. A Steppe Warrior Who Spent Decades Terrorizing Everybody
Tamerlane’s supposed descent from Genghis Khan might have been dubious. That did not stop him, however, from using it to justify his conquests as a restoration of the by then-defunct Mongol Empire. He claimed that his conquests were a re-imposition of legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been wrongfully seized by usurpers. With those justifications, Tamerlane spent 35 years roiling the medieval world. In that stretch, he earned a reputation for brutal savagery as he brought fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and Volga rivers, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.
Among the cities he left depopulated and in ruins were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Tamerlane was also in the habit of piling up pyramids of severed heads. Additionally, he liked to cement live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erected towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.
1. “When I Rise From the Dead the World Shall Tremble“
Tamerlane’s most dramatic victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. A rising power in their own right, the Ottomans were as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Tamerlane. For years, heated letters were exchanged between Tamerlane and the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, until Tamerlane finally showed up with his army in 1402, crushed Bayezid, and took him captive. In one of history’s greatest acts of ownage, Tamerlane humiliated his prisoner by keeping him in a cage at court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve the victor and his courtiers, naked.
Tamerlane’s decades-long rampage finally ended in 1405. As he prepared to invade China, he took ill, and died before he could launch the campaign. His grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all-time against the USSR, and the Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Tamerlane was reburied with full Islamic rituals.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading