What do Frederick II of Prussia, the Frankish monarch Charles I, Emperor Constantine I of Rome, and Catherine II of Russia all have in common? Plenty, it turns out. All presided over huge triumphant armies. All were feared by their friends and enemies alike. All expanded the boundaries of their respective empires. And most significantly, all earned the cognomen or nickname “the Great” for their legendary exploits — as in “Frederick the Great” or “Catherine the Great”, etc.
And these giants of history are in good company – no fewer than 104 kings, emperors, princes, generals, warlords, and barbarians throughout the ages have earned the title “the Great” at one time or another. Many like Alexander the Great of Macedon or Peter the Great of Russia you’ve probably heard of; some like Gwanggaeto the Great of 4th Century Korea or Radama the Great of Madagascar you haven’t. And while a number of these so-called “great” conquerors deserved the coveted title, others were simply masters of self-promotion.
So let’s meet a few of these “great” ones and see if they measure up to all the hype.
The first known ruler to earn the nickname was certainly no slouch. Sargon the Great conquered Mesopotamia and was the first bona fide “emperor” in human history. He began his meteoric rise to power in the sometime around 2200 BCE as a lowly cupbearer to the ruler of Kish, a city state in present day Iraq. After the paranoid monarch dreamt that the junior servant would kill him, he ordered Sargon murdered. Sargon survived the assassination attempt, bumped off the king himself and then assumed the throne. From there, he inaugurated a conquest of the whole of Sumer using history’s first known professional army. He ruled for 50 years and his descendants presided over the vast realm for another century.
Ramesses II of Egypt also earned the title “the Great” for his 66-year reign and his conquest of the Hittites, Nubians and Libyans in the 13th Century BCE. He even managed to crush the Sherdan pirates of modern day Turkey. Arguably, the greatest of all pharaohs, Ramesses II died at the then astounding age of 90.
Those Great Persians
The Persians also had their share of “great” rulers, but some were more worthy of the sobriquet than others.
Cyrus II, who reigned from 559 BCE to 530 BCE, was considered great not just for expanding the Achaemenid empire outwards from present day Iran to the shores of the Aegean in the west and to the borders of India in the east, but also for the remarkable tolerance he showed towards the religion, culture and customs of the peoples he conquered. His empire was truly multicultural.
Cyrus the Great’s grandson Darius I also earned himself the same grandiose cognomen. He invaded India, suppressed rebellions in Babylon, and pushed the empire’s boundaries into Central Asia. However history remembers Darius most for his stunning defeat at the hands of the Greeks at Marathon in 490 BCE — somewhat less great.
His son Xerxes I (who ruled from 486 BCE to 465 BCE) was probably the least great of the three. Despite an impressive monument building campaign throughout Persia, Xerxes the Great is most famous for what he couldn’t do: defeat a vastly outnumbered force of 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. He was eventually assassinated by one of his own bodyguards, with the help of a eunuch. Not so great after all.
In addition to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, other “great” emperors would follow. Valentinian (364 to 375), who defeated a confederation of Germanic tribes and even sent his legions into Persia, was one. Theodosius who presided over the splitting of Rome into the eastern and western empires between 379 and 392 also earned the nickname.
Justinian I of the Eastern Empire, Byzantium, became Justinian the Great for his re-conquest of the old Roman world in the late 5th and early 6th centuries.
Not just emperors but some prominent Roman citizens assumed the title as well. Consider Julius Caesar’s famous rival Pompey the Great, who rose to the consulship of the Roman Republic in 52 BCE. He acquired the mantle after his military successes during a civil war in 82 BCE.
The title was even applied to Rome’s enemies – consider the Gothic king Theodoric the Great, who conquered all of Italy and was named a Byzantine viceroy in the early 6th century.
Then there was Roman the Great, who wasn’t even Roman at all, but the prince of Kiev in the late 12th Century. He was famous for defeating the Cumans, a Nordic nomadic people who settled in a vast expanse of territory stretching form southeastern Europe to Central Asia.
There were a number of Peters the Great: The most famous was the Russian Tsar who ruled from 1682 to 1725 and transformed his country from a backward medieval kingdom into a modern European empire. There was also Peter III of Aragon who invaded North Africa and conquered Sicily between 1276 and 1285. And who could forget Peter Kresimir IV of Croatia who expanded his kingdom’s borders in the late 11th Century? Well, aside from the Croatians, it seems everyone did.
History also records a number of Johns the Great. There was John II of Aragon (yes, the Aragonese seem to have had high opinions of their rulers). He reigned in the 15th Century and was reputed to be something of a scoundrel. He reportedly harboured a jealous hated for his own son and heir, Prince Charles IV of Navarre. He stripped the prince of all power and is even is suspected of having his second wife poison his 20-year-old offspring. History has been kinder to John the Great of Portugal, whose reign spanned the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Also known as John I, the Portuguese ruler secured his kingdom’s existence in the face of repeated onslaughts by Spanish invaders and their French allies. John was assisted by an English army and even married Philippa of Lancaster. It was the start of a friendship between the two countries that has remained to this day.
Great Big Jerks
Greatness isn’t always about goodness. Some of history’s so called ‘greatest’ were loathsome brutes. Genghis, aka: “The Great Khan,” blazed a path of destruction throughout Eurasia in the 13the Century and killed an estimated 40 million people.
Dionysus the Great was best remembered as a tyrant and a much hated despot. Following a successful military career in which he led armies in battle against the Carthaginians on Sicily, the one-time clerk seized control of Syracuse in 405 BCE and suspended all democratic rights of his citizens there. He even launched a bloody and unpopular conquest of Italy. Despite the fact that he had a personal guard of well-paid mercenaries protecting him, it’s rumoured that the detested ruler was poisoned by his own son. Others have suggested that the tyrant died of alcohol poisoning after going on a bender.
Herod the Great ruled Judea with the blessing of Rome in the last decades of the 1st Century BCE. He was considered by many to be a raving lunatic who happily murdered his own citizens’ religious leaders. His son, Herod Archelaus, ascended the throne in 4 BCE. He earned himself a place in the annals of infamy for ordering the deaths of all male infants in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus — at least that’s how it’s recorded in the Book of Matthew.
The Greatest of All?
No list of great leaders would be complete without mention of Alexander the Great, known to his subjects as Alexander III of Macedon. In a little over a decade, the young monarch created the largest empire in antiquity, one that stretched from the Mediterranean east to India itself and included all of Egypt and Persia and large swaths of Central Asia. He likely would have pressed on into China had his homesick troops not pressed him to turn back. He died at 32 and in less than 20 years his vast realm had splintered.
History has all but forgotten the other, lesser-known “Alexander the Great”. Despite his highfalutin nickname, Alexander I of Georgia achieved little in the way of greatness. In fact his nation withered. On the throne between 1412 and 1442, the hapless ruler tried and failed to fuse his realm back into a viable kingdom after it was all but shattered by Mongol invaders decades earlier. Despite his best efforts, Georgia collapsed on his watch into a morass of feuding fiefdoms. it would take centuries to recover. The failed king ended his days living anonymously in a monastery; those who remember him disputed his title Alexander the Great.