Most terrible tyrants

It’s not easy being in charge; you have to make all the big decisions, like what’s best for everyone, how to improve things and who gets the last bit of cake. In the modern world, we the people generally get some kind of say in who makes those decisions. Well, most of the time at least. In the past however, you were generally stuck with royal lineage or whatever leader had just murdered the previous boss and was now using their head as a footstool. Sometimes, leaders took this responsibility well and tried to be just and fair. But pretty often, they jumped head first into the crazy pool and never bothered coming up for air. Today we look at some of the most psychopathic, murderous and downright bananas rulers of the ancient world. If you’ve never heard of Ivan the Terrible, his name is a pretty hefty clue that he wasn’t exactly the most agreeable of guys. Ivan IV was the Russian Tsar from 1547 to 1584, when he died from a stroke while playing chess; it’s a dangerous game kids, you’ve been warned. Ivan was a leader of sorts from a very young age, following his father as Grand Prince of Muscovy in 1533, a historical area around Moscow. This was at the tender age of three when papa died of a leg infection. His mother went soon after, when he was eight, but this was a suspected poisoning. When Ivan was 16 he crowned himself Tsar of all Russia, which at this point was a series of territories run by different rulers. Despite being a devout Christian, Ivan was a little unstable, probably not helped by all the leg and poison related deaths of his parents and his first wife. As a youngster he was said to have entertained himself by tossing puppies off balconies. And as he expanded his kingdom, taking on the Turks, the Kazan, the Crimean Tatars and many others, he enjoyed dealing out a good punishment. He would wall up entire cities so his troops could bring a good 500 to 1000 prisoners out every day and impale them or actually cook them to death in giant frying pans. Since he was a family man, he’d bring his son along to watch, but eventually he killed him too when he beat him round the head with a pointed staff during a family feud. Makes your Christmas dinners arguments seems a little better now, doesn’t it? Tamerlane the Great sounds a little friendlier but he was one of the world’s biggest mass-murders. Mao Zedong may have overseen up to 75 million deaths but Tamerlane’s 15 to 20 million is staggering considering there were only some 350 million people on earth at that point. He wiped out 5% of the entire global population. And that’s without bombs or guns; you’ve really got to applaud the hard-work and dedication he must have put in. Tamerlane, also known as Timur, founded the Timurid Empire at the end of the 14th century and claimed to be descended from Ghengis Khan, who came about 200 years before and was also pretty handy at the genocide game. We’ve all got to have heroes, right? Khan’s Mongol empire covered a much larger area than Tamerlane’s and his armies are thought to have slaughtered almost 60 million. Tamerlane declared himself the “Sword of Islam” and tried to rebuild the Mongol empire under his religion. But he wasn’t exactly at his most saintly when he had 90,000 people in Baghdad beheaded or when he forced people to die of slow suffocation. He also had great towers built from his enemy’s skulls, so he was pretty good at recycling too. Vlad the Impaler also has one of those delightfully informative names. Vlad was part of the House of Drăculești and ruled Transylvania in the 15th century. If this all sound a little familiar it’s because he is the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Vlad set about protecting his people and Christianity from the surrounding Ottoman forces and did a pretty good job of it. He built a fearsome reputation, largely thanks to his hobby of… you guessed it… impaling people. He once put all 20,000 men, women and children of the city of Amlas on spiked sticks through their bodies and faces. But I don’t want you to think he was a one-trick pony. He also skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, and buried alive, which sounds like the menu at some kind of hipster pop-up restaurant; I’ll have the strangled rabbit with buried aubergine please, with a side of forced rhubarb. And for desert, Vlad’s own head would fit the bill as it’s said he was decapitated by the Turks and it was sent to Constantinople in a jar of honey. The Roman Empire had a pretty good run of crazy rulers so it’s hard to pick a worst one but today we’re going for Caligula thanks to quotes such as “I wish Rome had but one neck, so that I could cut off all their heads with one blow!” He was the 3rd Emperor of Rome from AD 37 to AD 41 and got the nickname Caligula, meaning Little Boots, from his time as a boy when he accompanied his father, the general Germanicus, to various battles. He took over Rome from Tiberius and it’s unclear whether he assassinated his predecessor or not but it wouldn’t be that unlikely. He then proceeded to spend just under 4 years turning the palace into a giant brothel and having anyone around him put to death if he was angry or bored or just had a few minutes to spare. He was eventually assassinated by conspirators who wanted to restore the Roman republic but this failed and another emperor was installed instead. If you’re going to come up with a secret plan to overturn the Roman government then have a follow up plan at least, what would the People’s Front of Judea think… Aside from his notorious cruelty and obsession with rather suspicious hanky panky, he also appointed his favourite horse, Incitatus, as an official priest, not the most stable decision. Not to be out done by all the men, we have a female tyrant on the list as well. Empress Wu ruled China from 690 to 705 and is the only woman in Chinese history to have power in her own right. And she made sure she wouldn’t be forgotten as she was a ruthless and psychotic leader who drove her own people into misery. She was renowned for ordering daily tortures and forced suicides, as well as her sexual depravity. Wu started life in court as a concubine for Emperor Taizong and somehow managed to escape her expected retirement of going to the nunnery after the Emperor died. Instead, even though it was frowned upon, she became a concubine for his son, Emperor Gaozong. She then worked her way up to Empress by some pretty brutal means, including strangling her own daughter to death in order to frame the Emperor’s wife. Some people will stop at nothing for a bigger bedroom and an en-suite. Soon Wu was installed as the new Empress and was making most of the decisions. When her husband died, her son was made emperor but she soon had him exiled for not doing what she wanted and eventually defied tradition to take complete power herself. The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, centered in Istanbul, then called Constantinople. From 976 to 1025, it was ruled by Basil II, who also had one of those popular “The”-based names; Basil the Bulgar Slayer. And the Bulgars were Bulgarians, not that weird type of wheat that your strange vegan friends are obsessed with. Basil really didn’t like Bulgarians, for some peculiar reason, and he had numerous wars with them, one of which lasted over 30 years. He was finally victorious in the Battle of Kleidon and had a rather over-the-top punishment for his 15,000 prisoners. His army used red hot pokers and daggers to blind all 15,000 of them but left every hundredth person with one eye so they could lead the rest home because he didn’t want them all milling about, causing queues for the showers and stuff. Apparently the Bulgarian ruler died of a stroke when he saw what had been done to his people. Basil, on the other hand, was thoroughly pleased with himself and repeated the trick again in Macedonia, two years later. A good joke’s a good joke, I guess. And finally, a popular favourite; Attila the Hun, also known as Attila the Scourge of God. Attila’s empire grew in the middle of the 5th century and stretched all the way from Germany into Russia. He set out to destroy the Roman Empire and just generally anyone who disagreed with him. His nickname “Scourge of God” was due to the fact that he was so damn awful, everyone thought he must be some sort of holy punishment, much like how the modern world feels about Piers Morgan. He once met Saint Ursula, a holy virgin, and asked to marry her. She turned him down and in a fit of rage he had her killed, along with 11,000 of her companions. It’s even thought that he could have drunk some of the women’s blood. So although the current political climate is pretty heated, I suppose it’s good to know that things could be worse. But then again, just like your CV, I’m sure some things have been exaggerated over time and who knows what stories will be written in the future about Donald the Trump, Vladimir the Shirtless and Boris the total Johnson.

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