Vlad III regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, he invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447. He then dragged those who fit the bill outside, and had them promptly impaled – a horrific way to die.
Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their rear end. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad impaled people in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or days of agony before they expired. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad impaled aristocrats arranged in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.
The Real Dracula Scared an Army Into Turning Away and Going Back Home
The mass impalements did not halt Vlad the Impaler’s Easter Sunday feast, and the party went on. Afterwards, the impaled aristocrats’ wives and children, still dressed in their Easter finery, were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress. Vlad worked them hard, until most died of exhaustion. Months later, when the job was finally done, the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, were impaled. That was just the start of The Impaler’s passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much trouble. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and anybody else who angered him.
Vlad also fought the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, Mehmed led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The horrific sight spooked the Sultan so badly, that he promptly turned around and went back home.
If You’re Known as “The Terrible”, Odds Are You’re a Jerk
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 Russia’s monarchs’ title 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 subjugated neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. All of that was laudable from a Russian perspective. However, Ivan was also an insanely cruel despot, who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror. He massacred entire cities, and implemented a state policy of mass repression. In a fit of rage, he even personally murdered his own son.
Ivan the Terrible ascended the throne of the Grand Duchy of Moscow when he was three-years-old. His mother governed as regent in his name, but she died when Ivan was seven. A power struggle then 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. Eventually, he began to torture small animals to vent his frustrations. 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 widespread reign of terror known as the oprichnina.
Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina augured the absolute monarchy that marked Russia 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. His most infamous atrocity occurred in Novgorod. In 1570, when that city defied him, he marched on it in the dead of winter, seized it, then indulged in an orgy of 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 afterwards, 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 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. Ivan was a violent jerk even to his own family. In 1581, he assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law because he thought her clothes were 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.
It’s a Jerk Move to Make Fun of a Woman’s Age, Like This Emperor Did
It is rude in police society to ask a woman her age. A man who jokes about a woman’s age is deemed not only ungentlemanly, but a jerk. To be sure, when examined logically, it is ridiculous to consider one’s age an embarrassment. However, in a society that exalts youth and degrades age, and often (illegally) values youth over experience at the workplace, such hangups are understandable. As The Washington Post’s Miss Manners put it: “that question should not be asked of anyone except children“.
Women have often been judged based on their looks, and the notion that a woman’s beauty, fertility, and desirability, diminish with age was and remains widespread. Such perceptions made many women feel insecure. Those same perceptions were also often seen by some jerk guys as an opportunity to make fun of and crack cruel age-based jokes at women’s expense. Sometimes those jokes backfired. As seen below, an emperor died at the hands of a woman whose age he made fun of, when she failed to see the humor.
Emperor Xiaowu (362 – 396) ascended Jin Dynasty China’s throne when he was ten-years-old. For the first few years of his reign, the realm was governed by a council of regents. When he was thirteen, he wed a sixteen-year-old, who was either a lush or became one after she was married to Xiaowu, and drank heavily until her death five years later. Xiaowu himself was no stranger to the bottle. He liked to party and drink, and left the affairs of state to his advisers. Xiaowu did not remarry after he became a widower, and instead made do with numerous concubines. Of those, his favorite was the Honored Lady Zhang. One time while drunk at a party in 396, Xiaowu cracked a joke about the then-thirty-year-old Zhang’s years: “Based on your age, you should yield your position. I want someone younger“.
It was ungentlemanly, and Lady Zhang was not amused. Her power and status depended on her relationship to the emperor, and if he ditched her, she would lose it all. She was also mad because of the public humiliation, but kept her cool. Later that night, she got her revenge. When the emperor passed out drunk as he often did, Lady Zhang escorted him to his chambers. She bribed his guards to look the other way, then had her maids strangle and suffocate Xiaowu to death. Lady Zhang claimed that the emperor had died in his sleep, but the truth eventually came out. Luckily for her, nobody who mattered cared. Xiaowu had been a dissolute jerk who caused his courtiers more trouble than he was worth. They swiftly appointed a child emperor in his place, and ruled as regents.
China’s First Emperor Was a Real Jerk to His Subjects
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. To consolidate his power, the young monarch massacred palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives, 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 ended 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: tyranny and great oppression. Because he was a major jerk to his people, Chin Shi Huang was greatly abhorred by most Chinese despite his key role in China’s foundation. His most trusted and influential official was justice minister Li Ssu. He was not just a bureaucrat, but 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“. That was music to the First Emperor’s ears. Criticism of the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform on their neighbors.
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: keep out the northern barbarians, and keep in the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s heavy taxation and heavy-handed rule.
What Chin Shi Huang was most interested in was immortality through a “Life Elixir”. However, his quest to live forever backfired. His efforts to find a Life Elixir not only failed, but also did the opposite of what China’s First Emperor wanted, and shortened his life. In pursuit of immortality, Chin Shi Huang solicited advice from numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One adviser gave him 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.
Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), birth name Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled Madagascar from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel”, she was a tyrant at best, a certifiably insane madwoman at worst, and a major jerk to her subjects either way. Her 33-year-reign was a complete and utter disaster for Madagascar’s people. Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, about of Madagascar’s population died, either directly per 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 ludicrously 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 engineered a coup and seized power. She massacred all potential rival claimants to the throne, then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to a bloody reign.
Ranavalona inaugurated her reign by killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she ordered them strangled, or locked in a cell until they starved to death. 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. Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to European encroachments, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, banned Christianity, isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.
Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – had to perform labor in lieu of high taxes they could not pay. Such de facto slaves built houses and palaces, cleared lands and maintained roads, carried nobles and royal dependents in litters, served in Ranavalona’s army, and performed 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.
Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar that she deemed defiant. 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 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, and 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 scorched earth policies and repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. In just a six year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population plummeted from about 750,000 in 1829, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. Such genocide-level figures are 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading