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The most common killers of US, British, Russian, and Roman leaders — in one chart

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

However fatiguing American midterm elections might be, there's something beautiful that's easy to take for granted: you can safely assume that the losers will peacefully, law-abidingly surrender power. That's not always been the case, which is one of the lessons of the fascinating chart below, showing the causes of death for major rulers throughout history.

Reddit user Flibidi, using data from Wikipedia, made a chart of how every Roman emperor, English monarch, Russian Czar, and American president died. There a few minor errors (i.e., Grover Cleveland gets double-counted), but it's basically sound. And incredibly revealing:

ruler death leader chart

The Y axis shows percentages, so in other words 60 percent of Russian Czars died of natural causes. (Flibidi)

The big trend to pay attention to here is "deaths by natural causes" — that's a sign that the leader probably left office peacefully. Almost 80 percent of American presidents died peacefully, as compared to about 65 percent of English monarchs, 60 percent of czars, and under 30 percent of Roman emperors.

This chart just goes to show how much more peaceful politics have become. In most of the world, leaders don't die from wars anymore. But domestic politics have become much safer as well; see the decline in deaths from assassination and execution. Roman emperors were more likely to be assassinated than they were to live to old age.

This trend has been noted by Economists Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, who put together a database of 298 assassinations from 1874 to 2004. They found that leaders are a lot safer today than they used to be.  "At the peak in the 1910s, a given leader had a nearly 1 percent chance of being assassinated in a given year," Jones and Olken write. "Today, the probability is below 0.3 percent."

death of caesar

Vincenzo Camuccini's "Morte di Cesare", painted in 1798. (EfeX)

According to Jones, democracy is a really important part of why this has happened. People have become less and less interested in killing their leaders to accomplish political goals because they can just vote them out of office.

"Certainly, the shift towards democracy — while far from complete in the world — has definitely been a main story of the 20th century," Jones says. "You can easily tell a story for decline [in assassinations] largely because of representative government."

So whatever happens during the midterm elections, take heart: at least your candidate probably will probably not be killed by his or her secretary.

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