12/20/2012 08:30 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

History's 9 Most Evil Rulers (PHOTOS)

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert is the author of The Desktop Digest of Despots and Dictators: An A to Z of Tyranny , illustrated by Steve Krakow ($14.95, Skyhorse)

The notion of dictators as "criminals" is imprecise because, while their behavior might be considered criminal in the public court of opinion, they are technically "above the law" or, in another sense, they are synonymous with the law, since a dictator's will and the law of the land are, for all practical purposes, one and the same.

Dictatorship is a social cancer, to be sure but, strictly speaking, it differs from garden variety criminality, even when expressed on the level of a mafia kingpin like Al Capone or a cartel chieftain like Pablo Escobar. Dictatorship hinges on a Darwinian leader/follower dialectic and seems to derive from something still more ominously dark in the social paradigm.

There's something inescapable about it; it operates on a grander level than commonplace criminality, so that it assumes transcendent and autonomous proportions that border on supernatural evil. Like natural disaster, dictatorship is primal, elemental Dictators are truly, disturbingly spooky: criminals, yes, but criminals translated to the stature of monolithic governments controlling vast populations. The pernicious species we call "despots" abounds in the 21st century, and shows no sign of disappearing from the human scene.

Creepily, the specter of a "world dictator" seems more plausible a possibility today than perhaps ever before in history...

Here are 9 of history's most evil rulers:

9 Most Evil Rulers