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