They don't hand out nicknames like "the Great" to just anyone. History has seen its share of the Greats, with the works and deeds of such titleholders varying as much as their origins, eras, and cultures. How does one achieve "the Great" status, or quantify such a distinction? Plenty of ways. The number of buildings or statues constructed, for example. Or the amount of art produced. How about progress in science, technology, or medicine? Improvements to political structures?
Then again, this lofty title is often bestowed upon those who earned it the hard way - the bloody way. You can't expand borders, conquer armies, and exponentially enhance wealth without breaking a few eggs. Some so-called Greats have broken the boundaries, taboos, or social structures of their time. Some have been tyrants, others beneficent caretakers, and others still have been various shades in between. From Alexander to Peter to Catherine, here are the historical figures who have been bestowed with that rare and simple title: the Great. Vote up the Greats most worthy of the name.
There is nothing impossible to him who will try.
Although his lifespan was but a brief 32 years, Alexander the Great became one of the most notable rulers and military strategists in history. His greatness started in childhood, when he tamed his horse, Bucephalus, who was thought to be untamable before Alexander safely mounted him. The two of them became inseparable until the horse's passing in 326 BC, whereupon Alexander named the city Bucephala in honor of his beloved companion’s passing. (Interestingly, he also named a city after his favorite dog, Peritas, who also changed history by saving his master from an elephant attack.)
Alexander was a martial and diplomatic genius who is said not have lost a battle in 15 years, even when facing the mighty Persian army. He expanded Greece through what is modern-day Turkey, on into Syria and Egypt, Babylonia, and eventually Persia. Thanks to his tutelage under philosophers and artists like Aristotle, Alexander had a gentle touch despite his conquests. His education influenced him to teach, rather than force, the culture of Greece onto the many peoples he vanquished. His ambition seemed to know no bounds, and he may have succeeded with his plans to expand further into India had not he met an untimely end in 323 BC.
A true Great?
- Age: Dec. at 33 (355 BC-322 BC)
- Birthplace: Pella, Greece
Whenever you can, act as a liberator.
Cyrus is best known for founding the Persian Empire, which became the largest empire on Earth at the time. Also known as the Achaemenid Empire, it would eventually span more than 3,000 miles - an area larger than the continental United States - encompassing Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. Despite his desire to expand his empire, he was known as a tolerant and beneficent king who preferred to view himself as a liberator rather than a conqueror. Cyrus allowed the people he incorporated into his kingdom to continue their religious practices, so long as they remained loyal and paid their taxes.
He even allowed more than 40,000 Jews to return to Jerusalem after being held in captivity and persecuted in Babylon. The Cyrus Cylinder, which documents the conquest of Babylon, displays his quest for human rights as they were known at that time. It is one of the oldest texts concerning such topics, and is considered one of the most important discoveries of the ancient world.
He also founded Pasargadae, a gorgeous palace complex comprised of brilliant, megalithic architecture, set in an idyllic valley that is today considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A true Great?
- Age: 580-529 BC
- Birthplace: Anshan, Iran
I am the punishment of God... If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
Legend holds that Temujin came into this world clutching a blood clot the size of a knuckle in his right hand. What a perfect image for the man who founded what would become the largest land empire in history, at the cost of more bloodshed than can be imagined. The Great Khan united and trained the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian plateau, an area covering approximately 1 million square miles. At its peak, the Mongolian Empire stretched from Poland to Korea - which equates to a mind-boggling 11-12 million contingent square miles, or an area roughly the size of Africa.
Determining an exact number is impossible, but it's estimated he was responsible for ending around 40 million lives, leaving the bones of his enemies in piles so high they resembled white mountains from afar. The impact the Mongols had on the world was so massive, it's estimated their attacks reduced the entire world's population by as much as 11 percent.
In the wake of its destruction, the Mongolian Empire built roads, established law and order, reestablished trade, recruited locals to operate their own affairs, and were very religiously tolerant. This truly made the Khan great, but, as pointed out by Dan Carlin, that's not exactly a defense for all the carnage and destruction.
A true Great?
- Age: 1162-1227 AD
- Birthplace: Delüün Boldog
Right action is better than knowledge; but in order to do what is right, we must know what is right.
Charlemagne, which means "Charles the Great" in Old French, is considered the founding father of the French and German monarchies, and one of the greatest leaders of the Middle Ages. He was a skilled military strategist who expanded the Frankish Empire all the way into Rome, Bavaria, and Spain, and a religious warrior who fought to unite his people into one Christian kingdom. In 800 AD, Pope Leo III gave him a promotion from king of the Franks to emperor of the Romans, which surprised Charlemagne as much as everyone else.
He proved to be a strong and capable leader, whose many notable reforms in the government, law, arts, administration, bureaucracy, currency, accounting, cultivation, and the church spurred the age of the Carolingian Renaissance.
Despite his many great works and desire to be a model Christian, his reign was not bloodless. Charlemagne oversaw the Massacre of Verden in 782, when he reportedly ordered the slaying of up to 4,500 Saxons in an attempt to force them to convert to Christianity. He was also a man of large appetites, with multiple wives and up to 18 children. He was entombed and placed in a golden casket upon his passing in 814, and in 1165 he was canonized for his many great works.
A true Great?
- Birthplace: Francia