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10 Ancient Tyrants You Won’t Read About in History Books

by Jessica Fleming-Montoya
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

If you’ve studied history, you’ve no doubt come across some of the ruthless tyrants whose time in power has become legendary for their cruelty and violence.

Aside from Bloody Mary, the infamous half-Spanish Tudor tyrant who killed more than 300 Protestants, there are several other ancient tyrants throughout history that you should know about.

If this piques your curiosity, keep reading. Let’s get into the grim details of ten of the most brutal lesser-known tyrants of history.

Related: 10 Best Kings Followed By Terrible Sons

10 Tamerlane

Timur: The Man Who Killed 5% of the World

Tamerlane is one of the most dangerous and evil men in history, yet many honored this man for his work in theater and literature. Tamerlane, or Timur, is most famous to historians, however, as a man who engineered massive, destructive military victories but was himself unable to even properly hold a sword.

“Tamerlane” came from “Timur the Lame,” as it was said that he had received arrow wounds for stealing sheep as a child, which crippled him, a condition that persisted into his adulthood. Despite this, as he grew up, he became a vicious Mongol-Turkic warlord throughout the fall of the Mongol Empire during the 14th century.

Tamerlane was known to be not only an extremely intelligent military leader but also a strikingly cruel one. He took great sadistic pleasure in pillaging and destroying Central Asia’s wealthy cities, with his streak of terror drawing in a legion of thugs that essentially became an enormous pirate army.

With the growing strength of this army, he set his sights on increasingly larger targets, including some of the most well-protected cities of Islam—which at the time were far more advanced civilizations, both culturally and militarily, than that of the Mongols.[1]

9 Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz: Mexico’s Gentleman Dictator

Porfirio Diaz was a dictator who ruled Mexico from 1876 to 1910. He only stepped down as president after being thrown out due to his corruption and building the resentment that would eventually cause the Mexican Revolution.

During his time in power, Diaz promised to improve the struggling country’s failing economy and infrastructure but took countless actions to exploit the lower class for the gain of himself and the wealthy, ultimately causing immense damage to the country.

He is now known as one of the most hated figures in Mexican history.[2]

8 Wu Zetian

History’s Worst Mom | The Life & Times of Wu Zetian

In the 7th century AD, Wu Zetian was the first woman in Chinese History to rule the country in her own dedicated right. Taizong, the Tang emperor, even gave her the nickname “Fair Flatterer.”

Rumors about Wu Zetian started to arise when she became an empress. Chronicles would mention that she killed her elder brothers and sister and even poisoned her mother. Moreover, other texts would also include how Wu Zetian was clever enough to usurp the power of the previous emperor and that anyone who disliked or argued against the orders of the late empress was automatically killed.

According to the book Hidden Power, Wu Zetian also wiped out all twelve branches of the Tang Clan. She even ordered the severed heads of the two rebellious Tang princes to be brought to her personally.

Wu Zetian also ordered a granddaughter and grandson to commit suicide. That happened after both parties criticized her deeds. Finally, Wu Zetian poisoned her husband. All these actions, in her mind, were taken to prove she could be better than any male leader.[3]

7 Herod the Great

Who Was The Real King Herod? | Biblical Tyrant | Timeline

Herod the Great was a brutal tyrant of ancient Judea. He was vindictive, ruthless, and high-strung. He enjoyed killing people who he suspected were plotting against him.

Herod the Great ordered the killing of newborn babies in Bethlehem after the birth of Christ. His insanity also led him to lose his wife and three oldest sons. His brutal rule led to his government being frequently challenged by the Sanhedrin, a tribunal of rabbis who served as holy judges—but on all occasions, the charges were dismissed.

It did not end there. After hailing himself as king, King Herod began various massive construction projects. Using the taxes of the oppressed classes, he built a lavish palace for his pleasure and vanity.[4]

6 Godfrey of Bouillon

The Man Who Took Jerusalem | Godfrey of Bouillon | The Defender of The Holy Sepulcher

Godfrey of Bouillon was one of the leaders of an army of Christian knights during the first crusades. He was also one of the few men who set off to reconquer Jerusalem after several unsuccessful attempts at taking back control of the holy lands. Godfrey’s men penetrated the defenses, opening Saint Stephen’s gate.

Ultimately, after seven weeks of siege, Godfrey was triumphant in capturing the entire city, with tens of thousands of occupants slaughtered in the process. He became the first king of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1100.[5]

5 King John

A Brief History Of John Lackland – King John Of England

King John was Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane’s youngest legitimate son. Born on the Christmas Eve of 1166, Eleanor gave birth to John in Oxford’s Beaumont Palace.

Later on, John moved to the Abbey of Fontervrault to start living inside the church, but even during his younger years, he was known for being unstable, spoiled, and cruel. Aside from his name, his father also called him Lackland because he disliked receiving lands as inheritances.

In 1177, John received the title “Lord of Ireland.” And in 1185, Henry II sent John to rule Ireland. John’s insane and cruel character offended the Irish nobles, with his behavior frequently mocking and insulting them. A few months later, he returned to his homeland.

During King John’s rule, England had the largest tax exploitation after the Norman Conquest. Whatever John thought of, he would place a tax on it, doing this to pay for France’s failed campaigns.

By 1214, massive amounts of money were extracted from King John’s barons. John was ordered to seal the Magna Carta to limit the king’s power, a comprehensive 63-clause charter created specifically to inhibit the abuse of his greatly self-extended powers—including taxation without representation.[6]

4 Phalaris

Phalaris was given the royal title “Tyrant of Acragas in Sicily” from 570 to 554 BC. During the 6th century BC, Phalaris seized power and proclaimed himself tyrant of the city. He used his influence to crucify his rivals.

Phalaris loved roasting his enemies and made it his favorite torture technique. What’s even crueler is that he would do this with the individuals alive inside a bronze bull, with their tortured screams echoing from the inside, imitating the animal’s bellow! Phalaris took this advice from a coppersmith who taught him the roasting method.[7]

3 Commodus

The Unspeakable Things Emperor Commodus Did During His Reign

Commodus was the Emperor of Rome from AD 180 to 192 and is well-known as the insane and young emperor from the film Gladiator.

Killing people was Commodus’s favorite thing to do. He even tried to create a fake plot about someone wanting to kill him just to have an opportunity to torture his enemies. The Emperor of Rome also loved pretending he was a gladiator to kill wild beasts from the arena, boasting that he had won 12,000 contests in total. He believed that he was a reincarnation of Hercules himself.

Aside from being a callous murderer, Commodus also enjoyed defying traditional rites—he was known for intentionally ignoring all his duties as the reigning emperor. From AD 180 to 192, he focused on satisfying his 300 females while playing gladiator in the famous Rome Colosseum, even ordering the executions of most of his family members.

Even with Rome burning before his eyes, he did almost nothing. Moreover, he insisted the city be rebuilt and named after him. [8]

2 Cambyses II

Cambyses II and the Persian Conquest of Egypt (Achaemenid Persian Empire)

Cambyses II, the King of Persia, went insane after conquering Egypt. Egyptians celebrated during the birth of a new incarnation, represented through a sacred animal known as the Apis bull. This concerned Cambyses, and he ordered the creature’s presence.

After seeing the bull, the King immediately stabbed it, going on to mock the Egyptians because they were worshiping a mere animal. Cambyses also ordered everyone celebrating the Apis bull to be killed. Aside from killing civilians, Cambyses II was also brutal to his family. In fact, he killed his sister-wife and his brother.

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus, his insanity was caused by a severe case of epilepsy.[9]

1 Akhenaten

The Most Hated Pharaoh | Akhenaten | Ancient Egypt Documentary

Akhenaten was one of the kings of Egypt’s New Kingdom from 1353 to 1336 BC. His name translates to “the loyal servant” of the god Aten. Akhenaten chose the new name himself after converting to Aten, a religious cult that would lead Akhenaten to attempt to annihilate all traditional Egyptian religions in its favor.

His official reign as “Amenhotep IV” lasted for five years, and during this time, all his father’s policies were strictly followed, even Egypt’s religious traditions.

However, everything changed in the 5th year. Including changing his name (and the god with which the name was associated), Akhenaten underwent a major religious transformation when he converted his religious belief to serving the Aten cult. Akhenaten abolished Egypt’s traditional religious rites, erasing the names of the gods from temples.

Due to these actions, he was known as the Heretic King for the succeeding twelve years.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen