Author: C.S. Denton
Genre: Nonfiction, History
Throughout history, all monarchs have lived with the same dichotomy of simultaneously being human and more than human.
In our time, when monarchs seem little more than tourist curiosities and democracy is taken for granted, it is easy to forget just how much power pre-democratic rulers once wielded. The rulers and holders of political power in this book were all possessed of vast – in many cases, absolute, – power: power which was often exercised arbitrarily and unjustly.
What unites the figures in this book is that they all, in one way or another, failed to live up to the extravagantly high hopes invested in them and, as a consequence, have been judged harshly by history.
A few, such as George III, might have been remembered more kindly were it not for mental illness changing their status from that of hero to villain. Some, like Louis XVI, were unfairly transformed into monsters by hostile propaganda, while others, such as Pete the Great, have been both celebrated as heroes and denounced as tyrants, often in the same breath. Finally, there are those rulers who, like Caligula or Ivan the Terrible, may well fully deserve their evil reputations.
Ruthless Rulers is a study in how often rulers were carried away or overwhelmed by their exalted status, while a few were even driven over the edge into madness.
I received this book on Netgalley in exchange for a review.
This is a collection of mini-biographies of various ‘ruthless rulers’ from history. Not all of them deserve to be called ruthless – some are better than that, some are worse.
The book is divided into 10 parts: Rome, Iberia, France, The British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany and Austria, Italy, Hungary and The Balkans, The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and Russia. Each part describes a few rulers of that particular place that were horrible or simply incompetent and at the end there’s a chapter that recommends you books and movies about those rulers (my to-read and to-watch lists have grown after reading this book :)).
The author was obviously trying to include lots of rulers in the book, and I think that’s actually a bad idea; there are big chapters about people like Caligula, Catherine de Medici, Mary I, Cesare Borgia, but also very short chapters on people like Christian II and Macbeth. I understand the desire to write about the less famous rulers, but sometimes it felt like the author wasn’t really interested in some of those rulers, and the entire point of their chapters was just to take up space.
Most of the rulers included are men, but I loved reading about the women the most. There were some people whose lives I was familiar with only through fiction, so it was interesting to find out what their reality was like.