Well-Known Historical Figures Whose Lives Are Surprisingly Poorly Documented
Vote up the figures whose life stories are most lacking.
We may know their names and their achievements through art, TV, and film, but many famous historical figures didn't actually leave behind all that much evidence of their existence and deeds. In many cases, all we have to go on in the present day is the word of an ancient scholar writing years, decades, or even centuries later. Many valuable tomes from the time have simply been lost to the ages, while others lay somewhere beneath the earth waiting to be found.
This collection looks at renowned historical figures from the ancient and medieval worlds for whom very little verifiable information has survived into the present day. From the mysterious Chinese general who wrote the book on war to the great Macedonian conqueror whose empire crumbled immediately upon his demise, we'll see just how little we really know about these great historical figures.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain1127 VOTES
The Art of War is the seminal text on warfare that’s also made its way onto the bookshelves of unscrupulous business and political leaders. The short and easily digestible chapters stand up surprisingly well for a work written more than 2,000 years ago.
While the words of Sun Tzu are familiar to many, the man behind the work is far less so. Some scholars believe The Art of War was compiled over several years and attributed to Sun Tzu after the fact. It’s not even clear when it was written; the most likely date is between 500 and 350 BCE, during the Warring States Period of Chinese history.
Little is known of Sun Tzu beyond a few anecdotes of dubious origin. One account has him summoned by a local ruler who challenges him to show off his military leadership by organizing the king’s many concubines into disciplined soldiers. Sun Tzu divided the women into two companies with one leader each. He ran through some basic drills that the women didn’t take seriously. He told the women that if they did not follow the orders because they didn't understand them, it was the fault of the general. So he ran through the drills one more time. Once more, the concubines laughed and didn’t follow his instructions.
Sun Tzu then told them that if they understood the orders but didn’t follow them, it was the fault of the officers and had the offending “officers” condemned to death. The king protested that the point had been made, but Sun Tzu insisted, and the unfortunate “officers” were promptly executed. Afterward, the women carried out their orders precisely, acting as model soldiers. The story was written by ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian long after Sun Tzu may or may not have lived, and was used more as an allegorical tale than a documented historical event.
- Age: Dec. at 48 (543 BC-495 BC)
- Birthplace: Qi
- Photo: Phaidon Verlag (Wien-Leipzig) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain290 VOTES
Hannibal was Rome’s greatest enemy, the man who led an army across the Alps and brought the great city to the very brink of collapse. Despite how well-known his great deeds as a general are, there are no surviving firsthand accounts of Hannibal - or indeed Carthage at all. The closest thing to a primary source for the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage is the account written by the Greek historian Polybius around 146 BCE.
The historian was alive for the third and final Punic conflict and spoke to survivors of the second war, but obviously did not meet Hannibal himself. The Histories are the only part of Polybius’s extensive body of work that survives into the present day.
Another major ancient source, which drew on other works from the time that are now lost, was by the Roman historian Livy. The History of Rome was written in the first century CE, but only part of the 142-book collection remains. While not considered as objective as Polybius and far removed from the events, Livy’s work fills in a lot of the gaps.
- Age: Dec. at 64 (246 BC-182 BC)
- Birthplace: Carthage, Tunisia
- Photo: Hermann Vogel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain373 VOTES
Admired by Karl Marx and a symbol of hope for oppressed peoples everywhere, the story of a Thracian mercenary turned gladiator turned revolutionary has been told and retold many times in media. Although a well-known and much-admired historical figure, Spartacus does not actually have any surviving contemporary records of his life. His enduring fame is in part due to the heroic visage crafted by a priestess of Dionysus, who was also his lover.
When Spartacus was sold as a slave in Rome, a snake folded itself over his face as he slept - a sign of greatness in the eyes of the priestess. The story is mentioned in Plutarch’s biography of Crassus, the wealthy Roman who ultimately put down the uprising led by Spartacus. Parallel Lives was a collection of 48 biographies of prominent historical figures written by the Greek historian in the second century CE. Another major source of information about Spartacus came from another Greek, Appian, writing around a century after the events.
In both accounts, only vague details of Spartacus’s backstory are given. Beyond his place of birth (Thrace) and employment as a Roman mercenary, very little else is known of his life. This lack of background information is likely why film and TV producers have found him so captivating - there’s a lot of creative wiggle room.
- Photo: Ticinese / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0497 VOTES
Leonidas, the Spartan king slain in 480 BCE at the Battle of Thermopylae, has something of an oversized legacy in popular culture thanks to not one, but two movies that tell the story of his and his small army’s noble sacrifice. There’s just something about meeting a hopeless situation bravely that stirs the romantic in us all.
No surviving contemporary accounts of Leonidas exist; the notoriously unreliable Greek historian Herodotus was only around 4 years old when Leonidas perished. Herodotus got most of his details from interviews conducted decades after the events. What little is actually known of Leonidas is that the movie depictions by Richard Egan (1962) and Gerard Butler (2006) are way off the mark.
Leonidas was much older when he fought his last battle than the movies would have us believe. As the younger son of a Spartan king, he was not expected to rule, but after the premature passing of his elder brother (and father of his wife, Gorgo), he ascended to the throne quite late in life under murky circumstances. Little else is known of his roughly 10-year reign, while a great deal of ink has been spilled extolling the last days of his 60 or so years.
- Age: Dec. at 60 (539 BC-479 BC)
- Birthplace: Sparta, Greece
- Photo: Axis12002 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain5110 VOTES
William Wallace’s story is familiar to most people through the 1995 film Braveheart. While much has been made of the movie's many historical inaccuracies, the fact is there’s not an awful lot of verifiable information to go on. The screenplay occasionally drew upon a poem written by a monk known as Blind Harry in the 15th century.
Because Harry's romanticized account was penned more than 150 years after the Scottish hero was tried and executed at the behest of Edward I, it’s not exactly going to be a reliable telling of the tale. One of the few contemporary records comes from an English chronicle that doesn’t try to be objective:
…a certain Scot, by name William Wallace, an outcast from pity, a robber, a sacrilegious man, an incendiary and a homicide, a man more cruel than the cruelty of Herod, and more insane than the fury of Nero…
The passage details an unflattering description of the Scottish defeat at Falkirk in 1298, where Wallace apparently fled the scene before being captured. The time between the loss and his later apprehension was spent in mainland Europe, attempting to raise support for his cause. We know this because one of only two surviving documents personally attached to Wallace is a letter written on his behalf by the King of France to the Pope.
- Age: Dec. at 35 (1270-1305)
- Birthplace: Elderslie, United Kingdom
- Photo: Stavros Markopoulos / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0699 VOTES
Alexander packed more into his 32 years than most of us could manage in 10 lifetimes. At its peak, his empire stretched from the Balkans to the Indus River. Countless pages have been written of his deeds, but almost all were done long after his short but eventful life.
To the dismay of historians, many priceless contemporary works about Alexander have simply been lost to the sands of time. Even the site of his interment, once a hotspot for ancient tourists, has been lost to us - probably forever.
Our only knowledge comes from the much later works that drew on those long-lost pages. Perhaps the most valuable of all was the tome written by his general Ptolemy, who would later found his own great empire.
One of the very few written records that survive from Alexander’s time is an incredibly brief mention of his passing in a small clay tablet of Babylonian astronomical reports. It’s almost comical in its simplicity:
The king died. Clouds.
The Macedonian's passing ignited a great struggle over the pieces of his fragmented empire. Although many men tried, none could ever emulate Alexander.
- Age: Dec. at 33 (355 BC-322 BC)
- Birthplace: Pella, Greece