Nero, Ivan, Adolf – so who was the most depraved tyrant of all?
When Emperor Nero said let there be light, there was light. Mainly thanks to the bodies of crucified Christians he set on fire and used as torches to illuminate the Colosseum's night games.
Ivan the Terrible, on the other hand, showed his pedigree as a dastardly dictator from an early age through his fondness for throwing dogs off towers. But when it comes to vying for the title of the world's most despicable despot, there may be worse still to come, according to author Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.
Pitting the most prolific tyrants against each other in a battle for supremacy, his new book, The Desktop Digest of Dictators and Despots, trawls through the deeds of history's most warped personalities with each of his subjects sharing one thing in common – the trail of tyranny they left in their wake.
When it came to rampaging they had to be pretty ruthless, simply because Nero had set the bar so high when ruling Rome nearly 2,000 years ago.
He not only dipped Christians in boiling pitch and used them as human candles, but murdered his pregnant wife by repeatedly kicking her in the stomach and killed his own mother.
Emperor Charlemagne of France (742-814) also had a somewhat twisted relationship with his family. He kept a harem of women, captured from all his conquered lands, which included his sister.
Anna of Russia's (1693-1740) tyrannical trait, however, was less evil and more self-indulgent. She had a fondness for forcing noblemen who displeased her to live in giant nests, clucking, pretending to be hens.
She despised old nobility so much that she made one local prince her court jester and forced him to marry a scullery maid in a ceremony attended only by animals and people with deformities.
Few were as crazy as intrepid American-French explorer and all-round adventurer James Harden-Hickey (1845-98).
He declared himself James I of the south Atlantic island of Trinidade in 1893, despite the fact it was uninhabited. When the English arrived and declared the islands were now part of the Empire, he set about trying to finance an invasion of Britain. Not surprisingly, he failed and was found dead in a hotel room in Texas along with a suicide note and a homemade crown. Bless.
A vegetarian megalo-maniac, failed artist, one-time street tramp and quasi-occultist almost succeeded in his thirst for absolute power.
Thankfully, Adolf Hitler was unsuccessful in his quest, but highlighted once again that the crazed cruelty of dictators rarely disappoints when it comes to proving absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Many dictators have had a reputation for making rash decisions on a whim. But few could have been as whimsical as Honduran leader Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, who led his forces into battle against neighbours El Salvador in a brief but bloody war after being outraged at a referee's decision during a soccer match.
"Homo sapien has always excelled at devising fiendishly ingenious methods of oppressing his brother," says Alter-Gilbert, "and the catalogue of atrocities attending the history of man's inhumanity to man is truly pornographic in nature."
Indeed, while Nicolae Ceausescu was ruling Romania with an iron fist until his execution in 1989, he amassed the world's largest collection of pornographic films.
This may not sound so exceptionally deranged until you consider it included dozens of home movies of himself and his three children participating in sex orgies, according to reports in a West German paper.
Saddam Hussein, however, was more murdering maniac than sexed-up psychopath. He made sure his subjects knew what to expect from his leadership by execut-ing 21 of his henchmen as one of his first acts after acquiring power so they couldn't overthrow him.
Not surprisingly, Hussein was an obsessive-compulsive paranoiac, who washed his hands 40 times a day and compelled visitors to scrub themselves with antibacterial gel before he would meet them. It is all the more ironic when you consider he was finally captured by the US military living like a rat in the bottom of a hole.
According to Alter-Gilbert, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) is top of the pops when it comes to the most despicable despot of all, mainly thanks to the foundations of fear he gave birth to that would go on to persecute his countrymen for seven decades after his death.
"Lenin swore to rid the body politic of 'parasites' and commenced to murder 300,000 fellow citizens in a wave of 'Red Terror' that swept the newborn nation," he says. "His actions inaugurated a totalitarian bulwark that would breed untold misery for untold multitudes."
Even with the demise of despots like Hussein, Hitler and Lenin, we would be foolish to believe the days of such deadly dictators are numbered. In fact, their future could be very bright indeed.
"The pernicious species we call 'despots' abounds in the 21st Century and shows no sign of disappearing from the human scene," says Alter-Gilbert. "Like natural disaster, dictatorship is primal and elemental. And creepily, the spectre of a 'world dictator' seems more plausible a possibility today than perhaps ever before."
You have, as they say, been warned.
The Desktop Digest Of Despots And Dictators: An A to Z of Tyranny was published on January 17 by Skyhorse Publishing.