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5 of the Most Ruthless Rulers in Ancient History

You wouldn't want to cross paths with these ancient rulers, who were known for invasion and torture. Here are five of the worst tyrants in history.

By Allison Futterman
Jan 15, 2024 8:00 PMJan 15, 2024 8:55 PM
Ivan the Terrible
(Credit:Alexey Borodin/Shutterstock)


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History is full of brutal, cruel and power-hungry rulers. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin are just several the world has seen within the last century. Let’s take a deeper dive and explore some five ruthless rulers throughout ancient history.  

1. Attila The Hun

(Credit:alberto clemares exposito/Shutterstock)

Who Was Attila the Hun?

Ruling the Hunnic Empire from A.D. 434-453, Attila the Hun was known as “The Scourge of God.” After seizing power for himself by killing his older brother, Bleda — Attila went on to expand his empire into areas of Germany, the Balkans and Russia. 

Who Were the Huns?

The Huns were nomadic Eurasians, whose fighters were known to make blood-curdling screams and other noises while attacking their victims on horseback. These warriors, including Attila, were expert horsemen. He was also considered a brilliant military leader. Some Roman leaders were so afraid of him, they paid protection money to fend off an invasion.

How Did Attila the Hun Die?

Attila the Hun passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on the night of his wedding. The Huns then killed the people who buried him with his riches to keep the location of his grave a secret.

Read More: These 5 Ancient Rulers Changed the World. But Their Bodies Haven't Been Found

2. Caligula

(Credit:Kizel Cotiw-an/Shutterstock)

Who Was Caligula?

Roman Emperor Caligula ruled for only four years, from A.D. 37 to 41. But in that short time, he became a deranged and sadistic ruler. When he first assumed power, he allowed exiles to return to Rome, eliminated an unpopular tax and put in place some political reforms that citizens supported. 

But he quickly became erratic. Though it is not known for certain, there are different theories as to medical conditions that may have been the source of his deranged personality — including syphilis, epilepsy and mental illness. 

What Is Caligula Known For?

Caligula was known for his eccentric and often tyrannical reign. Some of his acts of cruelty included forcing a political rival to commit suicide, making senators run in front of his chariot for miles, throwing spectators into the arena to be killed by animals, raping the wives and daughters of senators and committing incest with his sister, Drusilla. 

How Did Caligula Die?

His descent into madness also led him to believe he should be worshiped as a god. Caligula’s reign came to an end when his own guards assassinated him, the first emperor to die this way. 

Read More: The Hierarchy of the 1200-Year-Long Roman Empire

3. Ivan The Terrible

(Credit: Alexey Borodin/Shutterstock)

Who Was Ivan the Terrible?

Ivan the Terrible was born Ivan IV Vasilyevich. He was first grand prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547 and later ruled as the “Tsar of all Russia” until his death in 1584. When his wife Anastasia died in 1560, he became convinced that his enemies poisoned her. This led to his escalating paranoia and mental instability, which motivated him to torture and kill anyone he perceived as a political rival. But he didn’t stop there.

What Did Ivan the Terrible Do?

One of Ivan's most infamous acts was the creation of the much-feared “Oprichniki.” This organization of bodyguards murdered priests and ransacked their churches, burned government officials alive, and drowned their families in the river. Traders and merchants had their goods seized and their stores destroyed — and were often killed. 

How Did Ivan the Terrible Die?

On the day of his death, Ivan was reportedly playing chess with Bogdan Belsky, a boyar (Russian noble). He suddenly collapsed and died a few hours later. Given his known health problems, this sudden collapse is consistent with a stroke or heart attack.

Read More: The 6 Most Iconic Artifacts From The Ancient World

 4. Timur


Who Was Timur?

Also known as Tamerlane, this Mongol-Turkic conqueror was born in 1336. Timur became a criminal early in life, stealing goods and animals from travelers, later working as a mercenary. He sustained severe injuries after arrows struck his right leg and right hand, and never regained the full use of his right limbs. 

What Did Timur Do?

Timur is particularly known for his military prowess and the brutality of his campaigns. He led military expeditions across Western, South, and Central Asia, the Caucasus, and southern Russia. His invasions were often characterized by harsh tactics and widespread devastation.

Merciless when it came to conquering a city, he quickly murdered those who resisted. His armies are estimated to have killed 17 million people, approximately five percent of the population at the time. He left pyramids of human skulls, displaying his savagery. 

How Did Timur Die?

Timur died in 1405 while on a military campaign to conquer China. His health had been declining, and he succumbed to illness during the harsh winter while his army was encamped. His death marked the beginning of the decline of his empire. Timur’s successors could not maintain the vast territories he had conquered, leading to the fragmentation of the empire.

Read More: 7 Groundbreaking Ancient Civilizations That Influence Us Today

5. Vlad The Impaler

(Credit:Tatiana Diuvbanova/Shutterstock)

Who Was Vlad the Impaler?

It’s believed that the fictional character of Dracula, created by Bram Stoker, was inspired by Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was born in 1431 and was the Prince of Wallachia, a region of Romania. He ruled three separate times between the years 1448 and 1496 and held the title of Voivode of Wallachia. 

What Did Vlad the Impaler Do?

Regarded as a national hero of Romania for defending his people from foreign aggression, he was known for the barbaric methods used against his enemies. As his name implies, impalement was his favorite method of torture and execution. 

Read More: Where Did Vampires Come From?

When three Ottoman men refused to remove their hats in his presence, he had the hats nailed to their heads. He also impaled people through various orifices with a stake that wasn’t sharp enough to kill them immediately. The stake would be forced through their bodies until it came out through their mouths.

How Did Vlad the Impaler Die?

Vlad the Impaler's death is shrouded in various theories. Commonly, it's believed he died in battle against the Ottomans near Bucharest in December 1476. Some suggest he was betrayed and killed by his own Wallachian boyars either during battle or on a hunting trip. Another version describes him dying in a defeat, surrounded by his loyal Moldavian guards.

Frequently Asked Questions About Ruthless Ancient Rulers

Where Was Attila the Hun From?

Attila the Hun originated from the region of Pannonia, now part of modern-day Hungary. This area was the heartland of the Hunnic Empire during his reign.

How Many Wives Did Attila the Hun Have?

Attila the Hun had several wives throughout his life, but the exact number is unclear in historical records. Among his wives, Ildico is notably remembered because he died on their wedding night.

Was Caligula a Good Emperor?

No, Caligula is not remembered for being a good emperor. His tenure as Roman Emperor is largely viewed as negative due to his reputed cruelty, extravagance, and possible mental instability, overshadowing any effective governance.

What Does Caligula Mean?

The name "Caligula" translates to "little boot" in Latin, a nickname he earned in his youth due to wearing miniature soldier's boots.

Did Ivan the Terrible Kill His Son?

Yes, Ivan the Terrible accidentally killed his son, Ivan Ivanovich, in a fit of rage during an argument in 1581.

How Many People Did Vlad the Impaler Kill?

The exact number of people Vlad the Impaler killed is unknown, but he is infamous for his use of impalement, leading to the deaths of thousands during his reign.

Was Vlad the Impaler a Vampire?

No, Vlad the Impaler was not a vampire. This myth likely stems from the association of his name with Bram Stoker's fictional character Dracula and his brutal reputation.

Read More: 3 of the Most Important Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt

This article was originally published on June 13, 2022 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.

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