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The Most Brutal Rulers of History

The 20th century saw the rise of totalitarian horror states where dictators oppressed their countries populations in an almost unimaginable way. Yet, despite the infamous reputation people like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, just to give a few examples, have, there were plenty of other ruthless rulers throughout history who were just as cruel as they were. In this article, I will only present rulers from the pre-industrial world, who did not even need an extremist, radical ideology to justify themselves in committing horrible atrocities.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang

The first emperor of China was one of the most successful rulers of history, born during the Warring States period of China he was the first man to unite the huge country, however, to achieve this and maintain his empire he used brutal methods.

Born as Prince Zheng of the Qin he succeeded his father aged only 13. During these years China was not yet united, and several warring states constantly fought against one another. Once he consolidated his reign he started to conquer the other kingdoms, it took him decades to finish his conquests, but by 221 BC China was finally united into a single state.

After escaping several assassination attempts early in his life he became paranoid and ruthlessly persecuted those whom he deemed as his enemies. Intellectuals were a group that he supposedly had little liking for, he ordered them to burn their books and had those who opposed him killed.

He also ended the Hundred Schools of Thought, banned and forbade the practice of most forms of philosophies, and advanced his own Fajia school of thought.

The emperor today is well-known thanks to his Mausoleum which is guarded by 6,000 Terracotta soldiers. According to Chinese historians who lived a century after the emperor, he used 700,000 unpaid labourers to build his mausoleu, and had them all killed after the construction was finished, modern historians doubt the huge number of labourers.

The reputation and legacy of the emperor is still a subject of debate. His widespread reforms are often credited for creating the foundation of the Chinese state( he reformed and standardized writing and measurement, built up the administration of the country, built a centralised road system and ordered the construction of the Great Wall).

However, for his brutality, he was regarded as a cruel tyrant throughout most of Chinese history, though it has to be noted that his dynasty soon collapsed after his death, so his memory was preserved mostly by the successor dynasties, who lost no time to blacken it.

Vlad Tepes

Vlad Tepes was the ruler of Wallachia in the mid 15th century. Wallachia was a relatively minor and unimportant state which served as a buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, both seeking to gain influence at the expense of the other.

When Vlad became the ruler of Wallachia the country was in a state of near-anarchy. Vlad took draconic measures to set his house in order, he set harsh punishment for crime and primarily used the cruel method of impalement as his principal mode of executing people( this method of executing people gave him his nickname Tepes in Romanian is a referral to impalement).

Vlad became the ruler of Wallachia three times. His longest reign was between 1456 and 1462. He took the throne in 1456 with Hungarian assistance, however, he soon came into conflict with the Transylvanian Saxon towns, after a period of fighting they eventually made peace for a time.

When Mehmed the Conqueror demanded his submission he had the Ottoman envoys killed. The insulted Mehmed attacked Wallachia, the outnumbered Vlad used brutal methods to terrorize the Ottomans.

According to some sources. at one point he had 20,000 prisoners impaled near his capital and left them to be found by the Ottomans. He tried to kill Mehmed in a night attack but failed. As more and more boyars joined Mehmed’s protege Radu, Vlad’s brother, Vlad fled to Hungary. where Matthias Corvinus had him imprisoned.

He was released after more than a decade of imprisonment and briefly retook his throne in 1476, but was soon killed in battle in 1476 December or 1477 January.


Timur was one of the most powerful rulers of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. He rose from a humble background to become the ruler of a huge empire in Central Asia.

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He rose to preeminence during the 1360s and by the early 1370s he turned the Chagatai Khans into his puppets. Using the Chagatai Khanate as his base he subdued most of Iran. He waged numerous wars of expansion in the following decades against his neighbours.

A real military genius Timur defeated the Mamluk Sultanate, the Golden Horde, the Sultanate of Delhi and the rising Ottoman Empire. His conquests and campaigns caused widespread destruction wherever he went. When his armies sacked Baghdad almost the entire population of the city was put to the sword and the skulls of the victims were piled up into skull towers. His campaigns against the Golden Horde weakened the Khanate critically, according to some sources most of the centres of the Golden Horde were destroyed, such was the destruction Timur’s armies caused that the Golden Horde never recovered from it.

He died in 1405 on his way to China, luckily for the Ming death saved them from the fight against Timur. The empire that the conqueror established remained relatively intact for a time, however, thanks to the infighting of his successors it eventually disintegrated.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible was the first Tsar of Russia and the last capable ruler of the Rurikid dynasty. He became ruler when he was aged three, as he was a mere child the country was ruled by a regency council.

During his youth, Ivan witnessed the negative effects that an all-powerful aristocracy can have and never forgot the lesson. During his early reign, he was assisted by a Royal Council full of reformers, it was during this period that he scored his greatest successes by conquering the Khanate of Kazan and Astrakhan.

After a pretended abdication he was recalled by the nobles, Ivan agreed to come back, but he demanded more control over the affairs of the state. During his „second” reign he became cruel and authoritarian. He set up the first political police force in Russian history, the Oprichnina, and ruthlessly purged the nobility using them. The purge caused the death of many noblemen, whose property was of course than confiscated by the state. One of the ugliest episodes of the Oprichnina terror was the Massacre of Novgorod. Before its sack Novgorod was one of the most prosperous cities of Russia, after the sack, it declined never to recover its previous prestige.

He also started numerous unsuccessful wars during the latter decades of his rule. Thanks to his wars Russia lost territories around the Baltic Sea and the high taxes also impoverished the population.

As he aged he became more and more paranoid, which led to further purges of people he distrusted. His temper also became a lot worse and during one of his raging outbursts, he accidentally killed his son and heir.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire, the empire which became the largest contiguous empire of human history.

The rise of Genghis Khan was one of the unlikeliest of history. Although born into a noble family he and his family were abandoned by their tribe after his father was poisoned. The next years were very difficult for him and his family, and they had a real struggle just to survive.

Eventually, he regained control of his tribe and allied with his friend Jamukha and another chieftain called Toghrul. Jamukha later turned on him and forced both Genghis and Toghrul to flee. Both regained power in the late 1190s and Genghis went on to unite the Nomadic tribes north of China into a single force.

After the unification of the tribes, he unleashed his armies on the neighbouring states. Between 1206 and 1279 the Mongols of Genghis and his successors conquered China, the Khwarezmian Empire, subdued nearly all the tribes of the Eurasian Steppe, destroyed the southern Rus principalities and raided as far west as the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary.

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact numbers, some historians believe that as much as 10% of the world’s population, around 60 million, may have perished thanks to the Mongol conquests. To put this in perspective, in today’s world it would mean between 700–800 million people.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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