Special Report

The Most Ruthless Leaders of All Time

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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. 

Phalaris
> Country: Agrigento (Sicily)
> Years in charge: 570-554 B.C.

Phalaris, tyrant of Acragas (now Agrigento) in Sicily, was notorious for his cruelty. He is said to have roasted his victims alive in a bronze bull and to have met the same fate himself after being overthrown.

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Qin Shi Huang
> Country: China (Qin dynasty)
> Years in charge: 221-210 B.C.

Qin Shi Huang, who was said to have been unforgiving in his efforts to expand his power and was known for persecuting scholars and burning books, created the first unified Chinese empire, although it collapsed soon after he died.

Herod the Great
> Country: Herodian kingdom of Judea
> Years in charge: 37-36 B.C.

Herod was a Roman client king of Judea. He appears in the biblical Gospel of Matthew as the ruler who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Caligula
> Country: Ancient Rome
> Years in charge: 37-41

Caligula was the third emperor of Rome. He was known as a cruel, sadistic ruler, but was kind to his horse, Incitatus, who he wanted to make a Roman consul and did appoint as a priest.

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Nero
> Country: Ancient Rome
> Years in charge: 54-68

Nero was the nephew of Caligula and was perhaps even more ruthless. He was known for his murders, debaucheries, and casual cruelty, and for supposedly playing a fiddle while Rome burned during the great fire of 64 A.D. (though this may have been negative propaganda from one of his rivals).

Attila the Hun
> Country: Hunnic Empire
> Years in charge: 434-453

Attila was a tribal leader who became one of the most powerful leaders in world history. He was known for his attacks on the Roman Empire and for destroying many of the cities he conquered..

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Wu Zetian
> Country: China (Tang dynasty)
> Years in charge: 690-705

Wu Zetian is one of the few women on our list. She ruled China for more than half a century and was known for mercilessly eliminating her rivals, including family members.

John I of England
> Country: England
> Years in charge: 1199-1216

John I, known as “Bad King John,” known for his cruelty, ruled England in the early 13th century. He’s familiar to many people as the villain of the Robin Hood stories.

Genghis Khan
> Country: Mongolian Empire
> Years in charge: 1206-1227

Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire by uniting the tribes of Northeast Asia and by killing all his rivals. His name has become synonymous with the cruel use of power.

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Timur
> Country: Timurid Empire
> Years in charge: 1370-1405

Timur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Mongol ruler more than 150 years after Genghis Khan. Millions of people are thought to have died as a result of his military campaigns.

Vlad Tepes
> Country: Wallachia (Romania)
> Years in charge: 1448, 1456-1462, 1476-1477

Vlad Tepes was known as “Vlad the Impaler” because of his preferred method of dealing with his opponents. He’s said to have inspired Bram Stoker’s character Dracula.

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Henry VIII
> Country: England
> Years in charge: 1509-1547

Henry VIII ruled England for more than three decades, during which he oversaw the creation of the Church of England and had two of his wives executed.

Ivan the Terrible
> Country: Russia
> Years in charge: 1547-1584

Ivan the Terrible was the first Moscow ruler to make himself Tsar of all Russia. He transformed it from a medieval country into an empire at immense cost to its people.

Mary I (Bloody Mary)
> Country: England and Ireland
> Years in charge: 1553-1558

Mary I was the first queen of England to rule in her own right. She’s known as “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of Protestant heretics, whom she burned at the stake.

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Ibrahim I
> Country: Ottoman Empire
> Years in charge: 1640-1648

Ibrahim was an Ottoman Sultan whose reign was characterized by war and rebellion.

Ranavalona I
> Country: Madagascar
> Years in charge: 1828-1861

Ranavalona was known as the “Mad Queen of Madagascar” and “Ranavalona the Cruel.” She is said to have been the most ruthless queen in history. During her reign the country’s population was reduced by a half.

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Leopold II
> Country: Belgium
> Years in charge: 1865-1909

King Leopold II of Belgium ruled the Congo Free State as a personal possession rather than as a colony. The population was reduced by a half due to executions, illness, and malnutrition during his reign.

Mehmet Talat Pasha
> Country: Ottoman Empire
> Years in charge: 1913-1918

Mehmet Talat Pasha has been described as the principal architect of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. He was assassinated by an Armenian while living in exile in Germany in 1921.

Benito Mussolini
> Country: Italy
> Years in charge: 1922-1943

Benito Mussolini was the dictator who allied Italy with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, leading it to disaster and defeat in World War II.

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Joseph Stalin
> Country: Soviet Union
> Years in charge: 1922-1953

Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union through terror for three decades. In that time tens of millions of his own people died due to purges, famine, and war.

Adolf Hitler
> Country: Germany
> Years in charge: 1933-1945

Adolf Hitler is almost in a class of his own for ruthlessness. He bears responsibility for both World War II and the Holocaust.

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Francisco Franco
> Country: Spain
> Years in charge: 1938-1975

Francisco Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for 40 years. After winning the Spanish Civil War he had many of his opponents executed or imprisoned.

Khorloogiin Choibalsan
> Country: Mongolia
> Years in charge: 1939-1952

Khorloogiin Choibalsan was known as the “Stalin of Mongolia.” He initiated a political purge that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Mongolians.

Mao Zedong
> Country: China
> Years in charge: 1949-1976

Mao Zedong ruled China for more than a quarter of a century. While attempting to create a communist paradise he caused a famine that is thought to have killed at least 45 million people.

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Kim Il-Sung
> Country: North Korea
> Years in charge: 1949-1994

As dictator of North Korea Kim Il-Sung led the country into the Korean War. His economic policies resulted in famine. He also murdered opponents and abducted foreign nationals.

François Duvalier
> Country: Haiti
> Years in charge: 1957-1971

Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” lived well for decades as ruler of Haiti while his people experienced poverty and hunger. Countless Haitians were “disappeared” by his paramilitary police force, the Tonton Macoute.

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Jean-Bédel Bokassa
> Country: Central African Republic
> Years in charge: 1966-1979

Jean-Bédel Bokassa styled himself as Emperor of the Central African Republic. He was accused of cannibalism and feeding his opponents to animals.

Idi Amin
> Country: Uganda
> Years in charge: 1971-1979

Idi Amin came to power in a military coup. He is thought to have killed 300,000 opponents. He also expelled Indians and Pakistanis from Uganda and destroyed the country’s economy.

Augusto Pinochet
> Country: Chile
> Years in charge: 1973-1990

Augusto Pinochet was military dictator of Chile for almost two decades. He was eventually charged with crimes of genocide and terrorism but died without ever standing trial.

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Pol Pot
> Country: Cambodia
> Years in charge: 1975-1979

While attempting to estaboish a communist regime in Cambodia, Pol Pot brought about the deaths of nearly a quarter of the country’s seven million people through execution, torture, starvation, and disease.

Mengistu Haile Mariam
> Country: Ethiopia
> Years in charge: 1977-1991

Known as the “Butcher of Addis,” Mengistu Haile Mariam was the leader of a military junta that carried out a brutal campaign of massacres and torture called the “Red Terror.”

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Saddam Hussein
> Country: Iraq
> Years in charge: 1979-2003

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who killed tens of thousands of Iraqis during his 14-year rule. He was defeated in one war with the United States and overthrown in another.

Slobodan Milošević
> Country: Yugoslavia
> Years in charge: 1989-1992, 1997-2000

Slobodan Milošević was president of Serbia and later the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Yugoslav Wars, which killed more than 200,000 people. He was the first European head of state to be prosecuted for genocide and war crimes.

Kim Jong-il
> Country: North Korea
> Years in charge: 1994-2011

Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-Sung as supreme leader of North Korea and continued the same ruthless political and disastrous economic policies.

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