Special Report

The Most Ruthless Leaders of All Time

History has produced so many despots and dictators over the centuries that countries that have never been ruled by one seem to be the exception. 

To compile a list of 34 of the most ruthless leaders of all time – those responsible known for their cruelty, those responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in pursuit of their goals – 24/7 Tempo reviewed biographies and historical articles on several sites, including History and Britannica

Our list spans millennia, from the sixth century B.C. to the present day. It starts with Phalaris, tyrant of Acragas(now Agrigento) in Sicily, who was notorious for his cruelty. His name may not be so familiar, but there are several leaders whose names have become almost synonyms for misrule – Caligula and Nero, for example – and cruelty – such as Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. (Here are the last rulers of long-gone empires.)

There are only a few women on our list. Wu Zetian ruled China for more than half a century and was known for mercilessly eliminating her rivals, including family members. Queen Mary I of England was known as “Bloody Mary” because of her persecution of heretics. (These are the most famous female rulers in history.)

Click here to see the most ruthless rulers of all time

Unfortunately, our list indicates that leaders haven’t been getting any nicer with the passage of time. Fully half the names are from the 20th century, including some of the most notorious leaders ever. Sadly, it might be characterized as the century of mass murder, with names such as Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong written in blood in the pages of history. 

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