Weird History
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How Perceptions Of Major Historical Figures Have Changed Over Time

August 17, 2021 711 votes 131 voters 6.8k views10 items

List RulesVote up the historical figures with the most interesting legacies.

The way we view the past is shaped by the present. As societal attitudes and values shift over time, the legacies of historical figures change as they are reevaluated. Some of these changes are dramatic - individuals once viewed positively have had darker aspects of their past come to light. For others, the reverse is true; those who were reviled and divisive in their own lives enjoy a resurgence in popularity after their passing.

Abraham Lincoln might be highly regarded by most people today, but he was a deeply polarizing figure in his own time. Historical legacies can also vary greatly depending on whom you ask. While Queen Victoria remains quite popular in Britain and the more autonomous parts of the British Empire, the areas that came under harsh colonial rule naturally view those years quite differently. 

This collection examines prominent historical figures whose reputation has changed with the times and how some individuals are regarded quite differently in the present than they were in their own lifetimes. 

  • Photo: Alexander Gardner / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    As much as Lincoln's memory has been venerated in the decades after his untimely assassination, in his own time he was one of the most divisive political figures in American history. Despite not even being on the ballot in the Southern states, he won the presidency in a four-way contest in the 1860 election. Upon his election, seven states announced their secession from the Union, which ultimately triggered the outbreak of the Civil War. 

    As a wartime president, Lincoln endured fractious relationships with generals who chaffed under his instructions and politicians who accused him of overstepping his executive boundaries. The suspension of habeas corpus was an example of his willingness to use heavy-handed tactics to see the war through. He remained unsure of his reelection in 1864, but some timely military successes helped to swing the campaign in his favor. He won a decisive victory but would not get the opportunity to see through his plans for reconstruction after the conflict. 

    While his sudden end was a major blow to postwar rebuilding - his successor Andrew Johnson did not share Lincoln's vision - it did help to craft his legendary historical legacy. Lincoln was to be remembered for eternity as the president who freed the slaves and kept the Union together. His name became synonymous with freedom and he continues to be remembered as one of the greatest American presidents, if not the greatest. It was no coincidence that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial

    To some scholars and civil rights leaders, Lincoln didn't quite live up to his heroic billing. Rather, he was a bigoted moderate who reluctantly took up the mantle of great emancipator. Another interpretation recognizes his limitations on race from a modern perspective but understands the magnitude of his actions and character. In 2005, a then little-known law professor named Barack Obama said of Lincoln

    As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice. Scholars tell us too that Lincoln wasn't immune from political considerations and that his temperament could be indecisive and morose.

    But it is precisely those imperfections - and the painful self-awareness of those failings etched in every crease of his face and reflected in those haunted eyes - that make him so compelling.

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  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alexander's premature demise ensured his empire would immediately fracture into many smaller parts, but also guaranteed a great legacy. He perished at the height of his power, long before old age and the endless responsibility of actually running such a vast empire would inevitably have crushed him. His successors were all men of great talent but none could emulate Alexander.

    He wasn't universally admired in his own lifetime; his cruel excesses on his campaigns and lust for power alienated his friends and galvanized his enemies. The mysterious circumstances of his demise were very likely caused by foul play. His family members were all eliminated in the aftermath of his passing; his only legitimate son was slain on the orders of Cassander, a hated contemporary of Alexander's.

    He was regarded as a heroic conqueror by the Romans; Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus were noted admirers. Alexander's Egyptian tomb became a major tourist destination of the ancient world. His campaigns have been studied extensively by military leaders for thousands of years, with Napoleon rating him as history's greatest commander. 

    While his empire proved to be short-lived, the cultural impact of Alexander's conquests had a profound impact on the area for centuries, known as the Hellenistic Age. Greek kingdoms spanned from the Hellas to Pakistan, fusing a wide array of cultures and scientific knowledge. Although seen in his own time as a drunken tyrant, his indisputably enormous historical impact continues to draw interest and admirers. 

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  • Photo: 20th Century Fox / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    There were many Cleopatras in history, but only one is truly synonymous with the name. Cleopatra VII was the last member of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt for 300 years. Her 39 years had all the ingredients needed for historical immortality: intrigue, romantic entanglements with the two most powerful men of the era, and a tragic end.

    The Roman view of Cleopatra was of a toxic seductress whose lust for power and wealth presented a dire threat to the stability of Rome. In the immediate aftermath of her passing, Octavian, the victor of the last war of the Roman Republic, was only too keen to tarnish her reputation. As a foreigner and a woman, she presented a convenient scapegoat for the conflict. 

    Her infamy grew in the wake of her passing with a series of wild claims from Roman writers about her sexual proclivities and lavish lifestyle. Cassius Dio’s assessment was one of the more restrained accounts of the Egyptian queen

    Cleopatra was of insatiable passion and insatiable avarice.

    Her dramatic story proved to be an irresistible artistic foil during the Renaissance period. Many of the myths propagated by the Romans were amplified by artists and playwrights in the late Middle Ages. In the Victorian era, notable for its fascination with ancient Egypt, her popularity soared. Some 20th-century filmmakers were also drawn to her story. The 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor is perhaps the most iconic of the dozens of depictions of Cleopatra shown on screen to date. 

    More recently, feminist reevaluations of Cleopatra have offered a more complete understanding of one of history's most iconic female rulers. A polyglot who had unusually mastered the tongue of her subjects (her predecessors never bothered), she was a fiercely intelligent and capable ruler who successfully kept the peace in her kingdom for several years. 

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  • Photo: British Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Churchill was a deeply controversial figure in his own time; his leading role in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during WWI almost sunk his political career before it took off. He never truly shook off the taint of Gallipoli, despite his best efforts to defend his reputation. He gained notoriety for changing political parties not once but twice. In 1904 he crossed the aisle from the Conservatives to the Liberals before rejoining the Conservatives again in 1924. In the 1930s he was one of the few outspoken critics of appeasement to Germany, an unpopular view at the time that saw him sidelined politically. He also opposed Irish home rule and greater autonomy for India. Even in the 1930s, his imperialist views were considered behind the times. 

    After WWII broke out, Churchill assumed the role of Prime Minister during the bleak days of May 1940. The British army narrowly avoided annihilation at Dunkirk and the French were knocked out of the conflict. Churchill refused to seek terms with the Germans, and the struggle continued. His strong wartime leadership was seen by many as a means to an end. Despite emerging from the great struggle victorious, the British people voted him out of office less than two months later. Perhaps the most significant outcome of that election was the adoption of the National Health Service in 1948. Churchill still wasn't finished with politics and made one last comeback to return as Prime Minister from 1951-55.

    In the years immediately after his passing at age 90 in 1965, he was lauded as a national hero who guided Britain through its darkest days in WWII. Churchill's legacy was bolstered by his own hand, as he was a prolific writer who penned a six-volume history of WWII. While generally well-regarded for his wartime leadership, his historical reputation has been tainted by his complicity in the Bengal Famine in 1943 and his racist views. More recent assessments of Churchill tend to be more nuanced, accepting the importance of his role in WWII without excusing his many flaws. 

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