Worst Tyrant Challenge

Introduction
This is probably going to get rather macabre, but given the subject I think it would be hard to avoid.

What I wanted to do with this thread was to present a challenge. Specifically, I wanted to propose that each of us set out a case for who we view as the Worst Tyrant in history (lets keep it pre-1900 given the subforum) with the aim of discovering exactly how bad some rulers have been. This can be on any metric you decide, but I think it would be interesting to see what people can dig up. I really hope people want to play along.

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To kick us off, I would like to nominate King Yeonsan - the tenth King of Joseon (r. 1494-1506) - also known as Yeonsangun (lit. Prince Yeonsan).

Yeonsan, came to the throne at the age of 18 following the death of his father King Seongjong. Prior to his ascension he had grown up primarily under the care of his aunt and grandmother, the Dowager Queen Insu - his mother, Lady Yun, having been deposed and subsequently given poison when the prince was still a young child.

Lady Yun had been deposed because she had proven highly tempermental and exceedingly jealous, having previously gone so far as to poison another concubine. There were numerous incidents, and Dowager Queen Insu's abiding loathing of her daughter-in-law, behind the incident which proved the final straw. In an altercation she scratched her husband, King Seongjong. While the King tried to cover for Lady Yun, the incident eventually reached Insu - who demanded deposal. Following her deposal, Lady Yun remained an issue, with numerous incidents of courtiers and scholars trying to have her reinstated (Lady Yun's eldest son, and Yeonsan's elder full brother, died during this time), eventually leading prominent figures at court to push for her poisoning - afraid of what she might do should she return. The circumstances of Lady Yun's death were kept secret from Yeonsan, with the King setting a 100 year ban on discussion of the circumstances surrounding Lady Yun's deposal and poisoning, and there were more than a few calls for Yeonsan to be set aside as heir for fear of what he might do when he came to the throne. Ultimately King Seongjong decided to retain his eldest living son as heir and passed the throne on to him at death.

His reign started relatively well, but he soon came into conflict with his grandmother and the court over a variety of issues ranging from his absolutist tendencies, lively lifestyle and dissatisfaction at the power and influence wielded by his grandmother. However, even at this point he demonstrated mental instability and a tendency towards violent rage.

Things first really went off the rails four years into his reign when it was brought to his attention that his great-grandfather, King Sejo, had been "slandered" in the royal historical archives. The accusation came in the form of a comparison to Xiang Yu's murder of Emperor Yi of Chu, with Sejo as Xiang Yu and his deposed nephew Prince Nosan as Emperor Yi (Not a totally unfair comparison, given that Sejo basically pulled a coup against his nephew's protectors and proceeded to terrorize his nephew by having a significant portion of the royal family executed over the course of four years until he surrendered the throne. A subsequent attempted coup against Sejo led him to order his nephew poisoned.), and an accusation that King Sejo had slept with his son's concubines - potentially even with the current Grand Dowager Queen Insu. These accusations, set out by a follower of a scholar named Kim Jong Jik, would be the excuse Yeonsan needed to purge Confucian scholars from the court - a step towards consolidating his hold on power which was followed by the closure of the royal university, Seongyeonkwan. This is known as the First Literati Purge.

During the time that followed, Yeonsan continued to consolidate power and abuse it. He closed the prominent royal temple of Wongak Sa and turned it, as well as the royal university and the royal main hall into brothels. These were stocked at first by dozens, and later hundreds, of kisaeng (trained and regulated prostitutes and entertainers) but the search was soon extended to any pretty girl in Joseon. He ransacked the military for horses, collecting them enmasse while leaving the frontiers denuded, and demolished a large section of the capital - displacing some 20,000 people - to make space for a large hunting preserve. He rapidly increased the rate at which tribute had to be delivered, on occasion to the level of near-daily deliveries, and the use of involuntary labour by the lower-classes was expanded massively. He allegedly raped his aunt, who had been his one-time care-taker, and constantly terrorized court ladies and eunuchs.

Push back occurred swiftly and consistently, with lower class people leaving complaints written in the widely known Korean Hangul script anonymously around the capital and in the palace. This infuriated Yeonsan and led him to pass a prohibition on writing in Hangul and Hanja (Chinese characters). When the Office of Censors (whose charge it was to criticize inappropriate actions by the king) protested, he had it abolished alongside the Confucian royal research library. He ordered his ministers to wear a sign that read: "A mouth is a door that brings in disaster; a tongue is a sword that cuts off a head. A body will be in peace as long as its mouth is closed and its tongue is deep within.", and when asked to amend his ways by the chief eunuch, who had served under the three previous kings, he shot him full of arrows and dismembered him, as well as exiling a minister for pouring wine on his clothes. Finally, he extended the punishment of royal family members for treason from execution to the 3rd degree (meaning execution of parents and children of the accused) to execution to the 7th degree.

All of this, however, was a prelude to what came next. In 1504, Yeonsan was presented with the details of the circumstances surrounding his mother's death and was given a bloody cloth - allegedly blood she vomited when she was poisoned. In a rage, Yeonsan had two of his father's concubines, who had allegedly played a role in his mother's deposal, arrested. He proceeded to torture and beat them before calling on the two sons of one of them (his own half brothers), while the women were left hooded. He proceeded to have these sons beat their mother to death under threat of death - one refused while the other, unknowingly, killed his mother. These two princes would subsequently be sent into exile and killed shortly after. Yeonsan next pushed for the reinstatement of his mother, which would remove the stain of being the son of a deposed queen, but met with steep resistance from Grand Dowager Queen Insu, who he drew a sword on and pushed during the altercation. Insu would die for the resultant injuries the day before Lady Yun was to be reinstated. He executed many government officials who had supported or carried out the execution of his mother, and ordered the grave of Han Myeong-hoi, a prominent political supporter of Insu and her backer during Lady Yun's deposal, to be opened and the head cut off the corpse. He even punished officials known simply to be present at the royal court at that time, for the crime of not preventing the actions of those who abused his mother. This came to be known as the Second Literati Purge.

His reign came to an end in September of 1506 when a cabal of court officials pulled a coup against him, deposing him in favor of his younger brother - who took the throne as King Jungjong. Yeonsan's favorite concubine Jang Nok-su was decapitated while all of Yeonsan's young sons were killed. Yeonsan himself was demoted to prince and exiled to Ganghwa Island where he died a few weeks later.

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I would rate Yeonsan as a top caliber tyrant. Not only did he murder a good portion of his own family in horrific ways, he was tyrannical in his authoritarian nature - imposing harsh penalties and exploiting his people with the worst (best?) of them. He is a complex character with layers of horribleness. There is the familial murderer, there is the playboy-rapist, the tyrannical overlord, the torturer-in-chief, the destroyer of convention and custom, etc. etc. etc.

So I now challenge you all to find someone on or above Yeonsan's level of horrible. State your case!
 
This is probably going to get rather macabre, but given the subject I think it would be hard to avoid.

What I wanted to do with this thread was to present a challenge. Specifically, I wanted to propose that each of us set out a case for who we view as the Worst Tyrant in history (lets keep it pre-1900 given the subforum) with the aim of discovering exactly how bad some rulers have been. This can be on any metric you decide, but I think it would be interesting to see what people can dig up. I really hope people want to play along.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
To kick us off, I would like to nominate King Yeonsan - the tenth King of Joseon (r. 1494-1506) - also known as Yeonsangun (lit. Prince Yeonsan).

Yeonsan, came to the throne at the age of 18 following the death of his father King Seongjong. Prior to his ascension he had grown up primarily under the care of his aunt and grandmother, the Dowager Queen Insu - his mother, Lady Yun, having been deposed and subsequently given poison when the prince was still a young child.

Lady Yun had been deposed because she had proven highly tempermental and exceedingly jealous, having previously gone so far as to poison another concubine. There were numerous incidents, and Dowager Queen Insu's abiding loathing of her daughter-in-law, behind the incident which proved the final straw. In an altercation she scratched her husband, King Seongjong. While the King tried to cover for Lady Yun, the incident eventually reached Insu - who demanded deposal. Following her deposal, Lady Yun remained an issue, with numerous incidents of courtiers and scholars trying to have her reinstated (Lady Yun's eldest son, and Yeonsan's elder full brother, died during this time), eventually leading prominent figures at court to push for her poisoning - afraid of what she might do should she return. The circumstances of Lady Yun's death were kept secret from Yeonsan, with the King setting a 100 year ban on discussion of the circumstances surrounding Lady Yun's deposal and poisoning, and there were more than a few calls for Yeonsan to be set aside as heir for fear of what he might do when he came to the throne. Ultimately King Seongjong decided to retain his eldest living son as heir and passed the throne on to him at death.

His reign started relatively well, but he soon came into conflict with his grandmother and the court over a variety of issues ranging from his absolutist tendencies, lively lifestyle and dissatisfaction at the power and influence wielded by his grandmother. However, even at this point he demonstrated mental instability and a tendency towards violent rage.

Things first really went off the rails four years into his reign when it was brought to his attention that his great-grandfather, King Sejo, had been "slandered" in the royal historical archives. The accusation came in the form of a comparison to Xiang Yu's murder of Emperor Yi of Chu, with Sejo as Xiang Yu and his deposed nephew Prince Nosan as Emperor Yi (Not a totally unfair comparison, given that Sejo basically pulled a coup against his nephew's protectors and proceeded to terrorize his nephew by having a significant portion of the royal family executed over the course of four years until he surrendered the throne. A subsequent attempted coup against Sejo led him to order his nephew poisoned.), and an accusation that King Sejo had slept with his son's concubines - potentially even with the current Grand Dowager Queen Insu. These accusations, set out by a follower of a scholar named Kim Jong Jik, would be the excuse Yeonsan needed to purge Confucian scholars from the court - a step towards consolidating his hold on power which was followed by the closure of the royal university, Seongyeonkwan. This is known as the First Literati Purge.

During the time that followed, Yeonsan continued to consolidate power and abuse it. He closed the prominent royal temple of Wongak Sa and turned it, as well as the royal university and the royal main hall into brothels. These were stocked at first by dozens, and later hundreds, of kisaeng (trained and regulated prostitutes and entertainers) but the search was soon extended to any pretty girl in Joseon. He ransacked the military for horses, collecting them enmasse while leaving the frontiers denuded, and demolished a large section of the capital - displacing some 20,000 people - to make space for a large hunting preserve. He rapidly increased the rate at which tribute had to be delivered, on occasion to the level of near-daily deliveries, and the use of involuntary labour by the lower-classes was expanded massively. He allegedly raped his aunt, who had been his one-time care-taker, and constantly terrorized court ladies and eunuchs.

Push back occurred swiftly and consistently, with lower class people leaving complaints written in the widely known Korean Hangul script anonymously around the capital and in the palace. This infuriated Yeonsan and led him to pass a prohibition on writing in Hangul and Hanja (Chinese characters). When the Office of Censors (whose charge it was to criticize inappropriate actions by the king) protested, he had it abolished alongside the Confucian royal research library. He ordered his ministers to wear a sign that read: "A mouth is a door that brings in disaster; a tongue is a sword that cuts off a head. A body will be in peace as long as its mouth is closed and its tongue is deep within.", and when asked to amend his ways by the chief eunuch, who had served under the three previous kings, he shot him full of arrows and dismembered him, as well as exiling a minister for pouring wine on his clothes. Finally, he extended the punishment of royal family members for treason from execution to the 3rd degree (meaning execution of parents and children of the accused) to execution to the 7th degree.

All of this, however, was a prelude to what came next. In 1504, Yeonsan was presented with the details of the circumstances surrounding his mother's death and was given a bloody cloth - allegedly blood she vomited when she was poisoned. In a rage, Yeonsan had two of his father's concubines, who had allegedly played a role in his mother's deposal, arrested. He proceeded to torture and beat them before calling on the two sons of one of them (his own half brothers), while the women were left hooded. He proceeded to have these sons beat their mother to death under threat of death - one refused while the other, unknowingly, killed his mother. These two princes would subsequently be sent into exile and killed shortly after. Yeonsan next pushed for the reinstatement of his mother, which would remove the stain of being the son of a deposed queen, but met with steep resistance from Grand Dowager Queen Insu, who he drew a sword on and pushed during the altercation. Insu would die for the resultant injuries the day before Lady Yun was to be reinstated. He executed many government officials who had supported or carried out the execution of his mother, and ordered the grave of Han Myeong-hoi, a prominent political supporter of Insu and her backer during Lady Yun's deposal, to be opened and the head cut off the corpse. He even punished officials known simply to be present at the royal court at that time, for the crime of not preventing the actions of those who abused his mother. This came to be known as the Second Literati Purge.

His reign came to an end in September of 1506 when a cabal of court officials pulled a coup against him, deposing him in favor of his younger brother - who took the throne as King Jungjong. Yeonsan's favorite concubine Jang Nok-su was decapitated while all of Yeonsan's young sons were killed. Yeonsan himself was demoted to prince and exiled to Ganghwa Island where he died a few weeks later.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I would rate Yeonsan as a top caliber tyrant. Not only did he murder a good portion of his own family in horrific ways, he was tyrannical in his authoritarian nature - imposing harsh penalties and exploiting his people with the worst (best?) of them. He is a complex character with layers of horribleness. There is the familial murderer, there is the playboy-rapist, the tyrannical overlord, the torturer-in-chief, the destroyer of convention and custom, etc. etc. etc.

So I now challenge you all to find someone on or above Yeonsan's level of horrible. State your case!
IMO, you should come with some objective criteria. For example, percentage of the population that perished due to the ruler’s activities. These activities can include all types of actions: executions, unnecessary (aggressive) wars, “reforms” with the disastrous results, massive unnecessary projects (like founding the new cities or building the residencies in the unsuitable places), etc.

Absolute numbers are not that good because a tyrant who managed to eliminate much more than a half population of a small country would be rating below a relatively mild ruler of a much bigger country who “eliminated” just a small percentage of his subjects.
 
Phocas was a real disaster for the Byzantines I guess. I don't know anything about his personal life but handicapping the Byzantine response to the Avars/Slavs while also starting a war against the Sassanids is kinda bad.

I would say there should be a distinction between "worst personality" and "worst policy", and people who are putting a candidate forward should argue for one (or both). Yeonsangun was a bad egg but he's no Pol Pot.

I would say Zhang Xianzhong of 17th Century Sichuan would be high up on the list, for starters.
Although he went a little purge-happy from all the paranoia and isolation after Li Zicheng beat him to Beijing, it's quite possible that a lot of the deaths attributed to him were caused by the general anarchic atmosphere of Sichuan (being a giant ricefield is good in good times, but in bad times it just spawns the worst peasant revolts) and the ruthless Qing restoration of "order" there.
 
Categories
IMO, you should come with some objective criteria. For example, percentage of the population that perished due to the ruler’s activities. These activities can include all types of actions: executions, unnecessary (aggressive) wars, “reforms” with the disastrous results, massive unnecessary projects (like founding the new cities or building the residencies in the unsuitable places), etc.

Absolute numbers are not that good because a tyrant who managed to eliminate much more than a half population of a small country would be rating below a relatively mild ruler of a much bigger country who “eliminated” just a small percentage of his subjects.
Phocas was a real disaster for the Byzantines I guess. I don't know anything about his personal life but handicapping the Byzantine response to the Avars/Slavs while also starting a war against the Sassanids is kinda bad.

I would say there should be a distinction between "worst personality" and "worst policy", and people who are putting a candidate forward should argue for one (or both). Yeonsangun was a bad egg but he's no Pol Pot.

Although he went a little purge-happy from all the paranoia and isolation after Li Zicheng beat him to Beijing, it's quite possible that a lot of the deaths attributed to him were caused by the general anarchic atmosphere of Sichuan (being a giant ricefield is good in good times, but in bad times it just spawns the worst peasant revolts) and the ruthless Qing restoration of "order" there.
Both of you make good arguments, so lets make a couple categories.

Category One: Worst Personality - this covers tyrants who acted horribly in a personal capacity, such as Yeonsangun. I think a figure like Nero and Ivan the Terrible could fit into this category because despite the wider results of their actions, it seems like they were driven more by personality/mental state than as concrete policy efforts.

Category Two: Worst Policy - This covers tyrants whose policy decisions were the primary cause of trouble. This would cover figures like Qin Shi Huang, Leopold II of Belgium (for Congo) and the like. Their goal isn't based on some sort of pesonal enjoyment, but rather on increasing their power/wealth at the cost of their subjects.

If people think of other categories please let me know, or if anything should change here.
 
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