While the modern world is plagued by some pretty vile rulers, all things considered we’re doing pretty well. Hereditary rule is pretty uncommon, meaning we’re not inevitably stuck with them for life, and there are people out there willing to help you overthrow vicious dictators. But historically? Man, things were much worse. Vicious and unimaginable torture. Insane rulers during a time when no-one knew how to treat them. These 14 cruel rulers were some of the worst. And yes, I know there’s a big Roman bias to this list, but that’s only because they were decently good at keeping documents.
14. Theodosius I
For hundreds of years under the Romans, Christians had suffered torture and persecution, but under Emperor Theodosius I, the tables were turned. Theodosius was responsible for an empire-wide attack on pagans in all walks of life, destroying countless priceless temples and artifacts. He caused the Serapeum in Alexandria, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the Vestal Virgins in Rome to be torn down. Any magistrate who didn’t carry out his anti-pagan laws were themselves attacked, and he outlawed the religious beliefs of millions. He even banned them from practicing at home, snuffed the eternal fire at Vesta, and disbanded the ancient Olympics. He is, of course, a Christian saint for all of this.
13. Carlos II
Carlos II’s family tree isn’t so much a tree as a circle. He was the king of Spain from 1665-1700 and was extensively physically, mentally, and emotionally disabled. A combination of rare genetic diseases hit him due to the inbreeding, which left him unable to chew, with a tongue so thick he could barely be understood, and he frequently drooled. The people blamed sorcery, but modern science points to the dangers of constant cousin-marrying for hundreds of years. He didn’t talk until he was four or walk until he was eight, and was treated as an invalid for most of his life, while ruling one of the strongest nations in the world, and leading to its decline.
12. Emperor Justin II
Justin II was the Byzantine Emperor from 565 to 578, and by all accounts went completely insane by the end of his reign. He started well enough, limiting the rampant spending of his predecessor, but his later years were dark. Tormented by dark thoughts, he was wheeled around his palace in a mobile throne, biting and licking passing attendants. Rumor has it that he even dabbled in cannibalism, though that’s hard to verify. He had organ music playing constantly to try and calm his mind, and recognizing his own madness, had the grace to abdicate before things went further.
11. Charles VI
It takes a lot of craziness to be known as “The Mad King”, but Charles VI of France pulled it off. King from 1380 to 1422, people started getting that something was wrong when while on a campaign, he drew his sword and started attempting to kill his retinue, managing to slay at least three or four, then falling into a coma. Incredibly delusional, he would sometimes claim to be made of glass and be afraid of shattering. He would periodically forget his name, rank, and his family. The most famous case is the Bal des Ardents, where at a wedding, the King and a number of men dressed like savages for a dance. They had costumes of linen cloth, soaked in resinous wax to look like clumps of hair. Unfortunately, one of them got too close to a fire and set the entire group of flame. The king was saved by a lady who put him out with her train (not even knowing who it was), but four men died and countless suffered burns on their arms trying to put them out.
10. Ludwig II
Ludwig II of Bavaria is best remembered for building fairytale palaces in the forests of his country, providing centuries of tourist attractions and fodder for Disney films. Ludwig hated large public gatherings and would much rather wander around talking to farmers and giving gifts to everyone kind to him than actually being a king and doing his duty. He drove himself millions of marks into debt constructing his castles and took loans from royals throughout Europe. He was diagnosed with paranoia by a couple of doctors though that was probably a political move more than anything else. Whether he was actually mad is up for debate, but he was eccentric and irresponsible, but loved by his people.
9. Ivan the Terrible
It takes quite a bit to get the title “the terrible” appended to your name, you honestly have to be pretty freaking vicious. Ivan was the first ruler of Russia to adopt the title Tsar, a derivative of the Roman Caesar. Under his rule, Russia swallowed Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia, turning it into the huge, multiethnic monstrosity we recognize today. Plagued by an unknown mental illness, Ivan would swing between debauchery and fierce asceticism, and he grew unbalanced and violent. Under his aging rule, violence and terror were caused by his men around the enormous country. Ivan once beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing “immodest” clothing, causing her to miscarry. This drove his son and chosen heir to arguing with the Tsar, who struck his son with a staff, killing him, and forcing Ivan to choose another son to rule after him, the mentally disabled Feodor I.
8. Sultan Ibraham
In addition to his many failings as a leader, Ibrahim is best known for being obsessed with… shall we say… large ladies. Ibrahim I ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1615 to 1648, and rather than concern himself with statesmanship, he wanted to find the largest lady in existence. Nicknamed “Ibrahim the Mad,” he once heard a rumor that his harem had been sullied by another man, so he ordered all 280 of the women in it drowned. He allegedly was so fond of big ladies that when a 330-lb woman from Georgia (the country, not the state) was brought to him, he lavished her with attention, gave her a Government pension, and made her Governor General of Damascus, one of the largest cities in the empire. You know what I find funny? A 330-lbs woman is now comparatively average, hardly worth questing for. Just check out Georgia (the state, not the country) for proof.
7. Qin Shi Huang Di
You could write entire histories just on Qin Shi Huang Di, in fact, hundreds have been. The first emperor of a unified China, he viciously combined the warring into a country vaguely resembling modern China. Qin was one ruthless ruler, and ruled from 247-221 BC. He forced people into monumental works like cross-country roads, the Great Wall, and his famous tomb, killing thousands in the construction. He obsessed over the elixir of immortality, sending expedition after expedition to find a way of him living forever, all threatened with torture and death if they were to return empty handed. Guess how many came back? In order to unify the thoughts and minds of his people, he had all philosophies and schools of thought bar one banned, which means millions of books of learning and thought were burned, and their practitioners were buried alive. The only things that survived were Confucianism and Legalism.
Caracalla was ruler of Rome from 198 to 217 AD, and this guy was a big fan of slaughter. Ordering murder and violence was just about his only trick, and the only people who didn’t hate him were the soldiers, thanks to the lavish wages he gave them. Cities that displeased him like Alexandria, suddenly found themselves with a much smaller population after he came to visit, as all the people that came to greet him were killed. Some 20,000 were slaughtered in days of looting and violence. He taxed the citizens hugely, and forced the ruling class to create immense structures with their own money for his enjoyment. He even tricked an enemy nation into thinking he had accepted a treaty and marriage proposal from them, and then slaughtered the girl and all the guests. A class act, he was.
5. Vlad Tepes
Tepes is an interesting case. Most Western Europeans and Americans know him best as the inspiration for Dracula, and think him a dark and terrifying figure, which he was. Most Eastern Europeans remember him best for saving his country of Transylvania from being overrun by invading Ottoman armies, for which he’s revered and loved. Ain’t perspective a funny thing? What that doesn’t change is that Tepes was a uniquely violent and torturous sort. As a youth, he was sent as a hostage to the Turkish court to keep his father in line, and there he was beaten and reportedly repeatedly sodomised, leading to his lifelong hatred of the Turks. His brother converted to Islam, and joined the Turkish court. When Tepes returned to rule, he did so with a vicious hand to any who were against him. He had Turkish ambassadors killed by nailing their turbans to their heads. He imprisoned the ruling class, and forced them to construct castles until they died from exposure and exhaustion. Most famously, he impaled people. He would arrange the stakes in elaborate geometric patterns. The stakes were blunt. They were forced into the anus of the target, where over the course of days, the weight of the person would slowly force the stake through their body, killing them with excruciating pain over a long period of time. He is accused of impaling, torturing, burning, skinning, roasting, and boiling people, feeding people the flesh of their friends or relatives, cutting off limbs, and drowning up to 100,000 people â€” but it’s not clear how much of this was true, and how much propaganda.
Commodus has the distinct honor of being one of the few Roman emperors people have actually heard of, thanks to being portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator before he went completely off the rails. Commodus was a pretty despicable kind of guy and was one of the few Roman emperors bread for the role, taking over from his father. He was cruel, vicious and petty. He kept a harem of kidnapping victims for orgies and auctioned off state positions. What he’s best remembered for is his love of the coliseum, where he would fight and kill gladiators, helpfully arming them with toy swords and having them heavily wounded before entering the ring. He boasted of having killed 100 bears, all of which were tied up and immobile. He charged the people of Rome an insane “appearance fee” for these acts, bankrupting the people. Any who stood against him were murdered. He was eventually killed when a gladiator simply strangled him.
Oh, Nero, the world’s most famous neckbeard. Rumored to have started an immense fire in Rome in order to clear space for his new palace, he had his mother and brother in law murdered. His first attempt at his mother’s life involved creating a special boat that could be sunk on command, but she survived the drowning attempt, so he resorted to more standard methods. He was an early persecutor of Christians, famously having them burned alive for light in his garden, as well as the usual panoply of torture and murder one might expect. He kicked his pregnant wife to death. He was so reviled that it’s thought the Book of Revelations’ Antichrist is a veiled reference to his cruel and torturous ways.
The case of Elagabalus is an interesting one because as vicious and cruel as he was, he was obviously mentally disturbed deeply. He ascended the throne at a young age, and disrupted the usual pantheon by placing a new Sun god at its head, proclaiming himself its avatar. A sexual libertine even by Roman standards, he scandalized the courts due to his multiple marriages and affairs, famously marrying and deflowering a vestal virgin, breaking her sacred vow and causing her to be buried alive. He would apparently dress like a woman and prostitute himself out on palace grounds. He had a favorite slave who he called husband and who called him wife, and desperately wanted female genitalia, to the point where he suggested giving himself a vagina by slicing open his stomach. The legends about him may be propaganda, but some of them are very dark, like having his men hunt for well-hung men around the country, and forcing them to be castrated, or encouraging his “husband” to beat him for straying. His reign was just four years before he was ousted.
Oh yes, Caligula. The gold standard of crazy and evil. Ruler of Rome from AD 37 to AD 31 his four years in power were enough to leave a millennia-long history of crazy. He elevated himself to godhood, allegedly cut open his wife’s stomach to see the sex of the baby, would sleep with other men’s wives and brag about it, constructed a series of increasingly elaborate and expensive buildings for himself. He was accused of incest, and of arranging constant foolish military campaigns which damaged the empire. Once at the Colosseum there were no criminals to throw to the beasts, so he had his guard throw an entire section of the crowd in instead. He appointed a horse to the senate and converted the palace into a brothel. Perhaps the most perverse of the tales of his depravity was that small children were kept to swim around him in the pools, fellating him. Murderous, insane, vicious and perverse, there are none more famous nor worse than Caligula.