Boy, I've been arguing with people this week -- the value of the power of positive thinking (overstated), the pleasures of Spring (overrated) and the like. So, I'm feeling frivolous this week and so goes the blog. I called this my blank ten list instead of top ten list for good reasons. Depending on the criteria you use, Napoleon could be number 1. By another set of criteria, Cheops might be, or, even King Alfred of England. Although I wrote a similar, but very nominal list on February 4, 2009 here, the criteria I'm using is different here. Although many of the rulers made both cuts, this list is of those rulers whose stories most fascinated or interested me, and the choices are not meant in praise -- in fact, only one of these guys is truly admirable -- the rest - well, even if we judge them as men of their time, they were tyrants, even if they meant well or thought they were saving their people. Most were horrifying. Such as they are, here's the list.
10. Juan Carlos of Spain. Here in America we praise Washington for not becoming a king in America. Although he was the most popular figure in America, I disagree with the consensus that the evidence that the kingship could have really been his in a country made up of 13 sovereign states (the way they saw it at the time). In my humble opinion, his revolutionary peers were proud he did not seek to be king, but would have rebelled had he tried. But Juan Carlos of Spain was actually King in Spain, and had monarchial powers, had we wanted to keep them. Juan Carlos’ grandfather, Alphonse XIII, was the last King of Spain when he was deposed in 1931, soon before the outset of the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco took over at the end of the war and become dictator and then, nominally restoring the monarchy, all powerful regent until he died in 1975. He had named his successor, Juan Carlos, skipping a generation to appoint the member of the royal family who most supported him, and it was expected that JC would continue in the same authoritarian manner as he had. Apparently, though, he had been secretly conferring with democrats unbeknownst to Franco and had no such intention. He stunned the world by almost immediately instituting democratic reforms. Although JC is still technically Spain’s King (not to mention the historical title of King of Jerusalem), just a few years after he took over, the conversion to parliamentary democracy came, and JC was made titular King. This self abrogation of power is itself enough to make the list. But JC’s life has three other interesting features. Like much of European royalty today, he is descended from a who’s who of historical personages, including Queen Victoria, King Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 2000 he was almost assassinated by the same nut who almost killed Pope John Paul II a few years earlier. Why was that guy out of jail? The last interesting fact is not so pleasant. When he was 18 years old, he accidentally shot his younger brother dead. There were different stories as to how it happened, but nevertheless, although no one suspects murder, he killed his brother and that has to stick with you to the end of your days. Okay, I ruined the mood, didn’t I? Let’s move on.
9. Strange that a history crazed person such as myself would have two choices alive during my own life time on the list, but Idi Amin makes it too. Amin was dictator of Uganda throughout the 1970s after taking power in a coup -- as murderous as a snake and as crazy as a bedbug. Other than that, he was quite an impressive guy. Undoubtedly my favorite Idi Aminism is his declaring himself the King of Scotland and America as well as Conqueror of the British Empire. That’s just Daffy Duck crazy. He was quite large and before he became dictator was Uganda’s heavyweight champion. Never got his shot against Ali or Frazier, of course, and would have gotten his clock cleaned if he did, but, presuming it wasn't fixed, that’s not bad. The coup wasn’t his first power grab. In the late 60s he helped the prime minister oust the king and became commander of the armed forces. Perhaps he would have stayed that if the prime minister didn’t plot against him. Amin struck first. Of course, he promised to institute democratic process. What didn’t Amin do? He was responsible for the murder of perhaps hundreds of thousands of citizens, expelled Asians, bonded with Libya’s Gadaffi, who just missed this list, and publicly threatened Kenya and Israel. Kenya brought troops to the border, sending Amin scurrying for cover. When Uganda allowed a hijacked plane to land there, and Israelis remained the only hostages, it ended up the subject of the legendary Entebbe raid. Israel’s well planned attack left only one of their own soldier’s dead and only a few hostages, while dozens of Ugandan soldiers and all the hijackers met their fate. Things started to unravel for Amin. He became crazier and crazier. In 1978 he actually invaded another neighbor, Tanzania, which fought back and invaded Uganda. Amin fled, and though he tried to take over again years later, he died an exile in 2003.
8. Jump back a few thousand years to this Egyptian King, Psammetichus. I learned about this Pharaoh from one of my favorite history books – the first, as far as we know anyway, Herodotus’s Histories. Unlike some of the other characters in Herodotus, Psammetichus is not legendary, but was a ruler of Egypt for 54 years. According to Herodotus (but not more modern historians) he was one of twelve rulers of Egypt, and accidentally fulfilled a prophecy for uniting the empire by drinking from his bronze helmet the priest serving the twelve forgot to bring enough glasses. The other kings were shaken by this, but kindly decided not to kill him, and just banished him. He consulted an oracle, who told him that he would rule when he became allied with bronze men from the sea. Sure enough, Greeks showed up from the sea decked out in bronze and he went to meet them. This is all an approximation of the truth and Herodotus was not far off. Psammetichus did unite Egypt in the 7th century B.C. and freed them from the yoke of the Assyrians. He did bring Greeks into the empire, but possibly not in the way Herodotus stated, with the Greek warriors helped him take over. But my favorite Psammetichus stories are also from Herodotus and concern two experiments he did. The less interesting of them involved an experiment to discover the depth of the Nile by lowering a rope into it. The rope was reportedly thousands of fathoms long, but never reached the bottom. Herodotus learned much later that unbeknownst to Psammetichus, powerful underwater currents would prevent any rope from reaching the bottom. Of course, everything Herodotus told us about the Nile was pretty much wrong, and, although he was honest in saying when he thought the stories he heard were not true, he missed the boat on this one. The better story is his experiment to discover which were the first people on earth. He did this in a less than logical way (not that it really happened). He took two babies and had them raised by women whose tongues were cut out (one version of the story anyway). Whichever was the first word uttered would (naturally) prove which was the first language and the first people. The first word that came out was “Bekos,” a Phrygian word meaning bread. After that, the Egyptians believed the Phrygians to have preceded them in time on Earth. We have so much knowledge to thank Herodotus for, and these facts aren't among them. However, they did make, Psammetichus one of my favorite characters.
7. Peter Alexeyevich Romanov is the subject of a number of books, but Robert K. Massie’s Peter the Great is my all time favorite biography providing one of the most interesting and readable histories of Russia. Peter, raised by the Czar, was groomed from the beginning. When his father died, his forceful mother took over as Regent until Peter came of age and he still had to share with a brother, who was not healthy and soon died. When he did take over, he put his stamp on Russia for ever. But, the six foot eight inch Peter interested me for reasons other than his military success (eventually) and rule. He was a strange Czar who traveled for a year and a half incognito to try and raise European help against the Ottomans (unsuccessfully) and while there learned to build ships and cities, rushed home to put down one of many insurrections, had over a thousand of the rebels tortured and killed, gave Russia a Navy, forced his court to shave their beards and dress in a western style, was fascinated by and collected giants, including a huge French personal servant nicknamed Bourgeous, as well as dwarves, greatly expanded Russia’s territory to its staggering size, played huge mock battles with his toy navy, forced his wife to become a nun as well as his traitorous half sister, had his disloyal eldest son imprisoned and tortured to death, prevented Russians from becoming monks before they turned 50, had glorious St. Petersburg built and finally died at age 52 of bladder problems. His life spanned the 17th and 18th century, was filled with many successes and many personal disasters, and was not just “Great,” but fascinating.
6. As remarkable as Peter was, Attila the Hun, the leader of the Hun horde that ravaged Europe in the fifth century A.D. makes him look tepid in comparison. Known as the Scourge of God, there are many rumors and legends about the great leader, but much of it is just speculation. The Huns left no texts and their language is unknown. A contemporary witness described Attila as small, broad man, large headed man with small eyes, a thin graying beard, flat nose and tanned skin. At least that was the report from a historian a couple of centuries later who had the report. The Hun’s originations are unknown and may have been a conglomerate of Asiatic tribes, including Turks, Goths and Alans, etc. Attila ruled on horseback, but that was the norm for the Huns, a nomadic horseback tribe that used the sword as well as the powerful composite bow. Attila’s name is Gothic German for Little Father, which sounds more like an appellation than a real name. He ruled from 434 through 453, the first half with his brother, whom he killed (probably). He and his men devastated the towns they plundered. They were rarely defeated in battle but finally defeated in modern day France by a collection of Gauls, Goths and Romans, but escaped intact to ravage Italy. Fortunately for Rome, Attila died the next year, probably only 47 years old. He appears to have choked to death on his own blood during a party and the cause of this is subject to more speculation. At one point, the Roman Emperor’s sister, Honoria, seeking to evade marriage to a Roman Senator, sent Attila her engagement ring, either proposing marriage to Attila or merely asking for his aid. He determined it was a proposal and tried to claim her. He never attacked either Rome or Constantinople, although he threatened them, and decimated large parts of Europe while doing so. Like many famous warrior-rulers of old, he had a famous sword, allegedly found by a shepherd boy, known as the Sword of God, or, Sword of the War God. It came to represent him. Though probably lost to history, it has been “found” more than once.
5. Writing about Adolf Hitler is always tricky. There are many people still alive who suffered from his outrages which involved much of the world, and Jews are, not surprisingly, especially sensitive about him. The loathing has led to a strange sort of prism through which Hitler must be politically viewd, and any suggestion that there was anything interesting, or not outright horrifying about him, is immediately rejected, and, the writer pilloried as a Hitler-lover or apologist. Even an open discussion of how many people died in the holocaust is cause for anger and accusations. However bad Hitler was, he was a force bar none in the world, rallying his country after their disastrous defeat in WWI, charming, bullying and terrorizing almost all of Europe in the run up to the war. He was seemingly invincible in his judgments early on, showed us the fallacy of appeasement at Munich, took the surrounding countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot by threats, tricks and intimidation, set off WWII by invading Poland, dominated and pummeled England, France and Russia for a while with little real assistance except from a distant Japan distracting America in the Pacific, before the wealth and power of America and Russia, together with the help of its other allies determined his and his country’s fate. His startling blue eyes, magnetic charisma, megalomaniacal personality, political superiority, animalistic violence, strange relationships with his mistress (and at the end, wife), Eva Braun, and his own niece, Geli, who was found dead in his apartment killed (by herself?) with his gun, bizarre superstitions, loyalty to many of those he favored, his understanding of mechanical warfare ahead of his peers, devotion to art and architecture, the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust, his driving of new technology and weaponry, and belief in his own powers were the sole wellspring of WWII, the greatest and most cataclysmic event in modern history, which has left its stamp on Western Civilization for over 60 years so far, and, likely well into the future. In destroying him, he made Churchill, Roosevelt and even the equally heinous Stalin, great. He was easy to hate and impossible to deny. The world's fascination with him has never dimmed.
4. Sargon of Akkad – It is amazing how much they know about Sargon, who some identify with the biblical figure, Nimrod, legendary founder of many great cities in Mesopotamia. However, as all of our information comes from texts some thousands of years old, much is legend mixed with fact, and the two cannot be unraveled. Sargon makes the list because he is arguably (hard to say) the first founder of a great empire well over four thousand years ago. He may also be the founder of Akkad, which sounds not so impressive unless you recognize how dominant the Akkadian empire was politically and linguistically for well over a millenium. About fifteen hundred years after Sargon's death, although still only the 8th century, B.C., a text, purportedly his autobiography, speaks of his birth in a way that might sound familiar – he was given birth to by a priestess from an unknown father, sealed in a basket of rushes and set adrift, to be rescued by a commoner. Along came a goddess who gave him her love and poof – he’s king. If it sounds vaguely like Moses, there are others who share this probably mythological Near and Middle Eastern beginning. Sargon was undoubtedly a great conqueror and established his rule over all of Mesopotamia (now, basically Iraq), parts of what is now Iran, the Northern parts of Arabia and then across the fertile crescent across Syria and into Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. These were bitter, brutal times, when lives were ended in an instance, connected leashes lashed to the lips of slaves and horrendous slaughter commonplace. Yet Sargon managed to win battle after battle, expanding his city-state into an empire. He did not have the greatest empire by far, but first means something. He died in the 23rd century B.C., at least a thousand years before the Trojan War’s historical date and the birth of Abraham. He was, if nothing else, an early and major part of forces that would shape the world we know, possibly the inspiration for biblical characters and text, and certainly a hero to rulers in his area for many hundred of years. Sargon II, the great Assyrian ruler, took his name some fifteen hundred years later.
3. Who would we be if not for William the Conqueror? He was, in some senses, the founder of the Britain we know today, a mixture of French and Anglo-Saxon culture. His great victory in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings on England’s shore is still one of the most famous dates in history. Born around 1028 A.D., he was first known as William the Bastard, being the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, but was named heir all the same when still just a boy. He had to fight to keep his title and would have certainly lost it to a host of usurpers if not for the support of Henry I of France, who then turned against him and tried to take Normandy from him too (although it was a French dependency). William gained in power and popularity. 1066 was a year that saw England on the defensive and in which it had four kings. Edward the Confessor, a mild man by the standards of the time was first but died in January of that year. Harold Godwinson was crowned King. William claimed that Edward had promised him the title during William’s visit to London, and that Harold, who he had rescued, fought with side by side and eventually knighted, promised him his allegiance (although perhaps by trickery). The Pope supported William, which quite important at the time. Harold first had to fight off his own brother who was allied with the Danish, a people who had controlled parts of Britain for a couple of hundred years (the Danelaw), and then rush to the Southern coast to fight William. But, it was too late. William had time to build forts and pick his spot for the fight. Although the forces were roughly equal in size, William had calvary, infantry and archers, while Harold was mostly limited to infantry. At first, Harold seemed to hold his own, but the effect of the arrows and the power of the horseback soldiers eventually wore his forces away, and after a day of battle, Harold and his other brothers fell. Still, England would not surrender and a very young Edgar Aetheling was named king. Although most folks think Hastings ended the Conqueror's bid, Aetheling did not surrender for about 8 years, and William had to fight to win. Once conquering though, he returned to Normandy and spent most of his life in France or having other adventures, battling his own family and neighbors as was the way of the time. He died during battle after a fall from a horse in 1078. Long before he died, however, his administration had changed Britain forever, Normandizing the language, at least of the ruling class, and transferring most of the land to his Norman kinsmen and followers. It was the last time England was successfully invaded. Had he failed, he would not be looked upon as a heroic figure today, but as another wannabe English conqueror, along with Napoleon and Hitler. But, no doubt, Britain would have been a more Germanic country and language, and the veils of history do not let us get a peak at what effect that would have had in the twentieth century.
2. Even I’m not sure why I like Sulla the Happy. He was as ambitious and awful as a Roman tyrant could be, but there’s something about him that was – happy? Perhaps it is just because he is so less famous than Caesar, who I never could stand. He came up under the consul Marius, a wealthy and powerful man during a time when Italy, completely under the tyrannical sway of Rome, was in constant upheaval – the rich and the poor, the aristocracy and the democrats were at constant odds. In 88 B.C., with Marius retired, Lucius Cornelius Sulla was made one of the consuls in order to battle a powerful opponent, Mithridates of Greece. One of Sulla’s adversaries managed to get the Assembly to bring back Marius in his stead. Sulla, originally a poorer member of the aristocracy, fled to the army, and with them at his back attacked Rome. Now Marius fled, and the man behind it, Sulpicius Rufus, betrayed by his slave, had his head fixed on a pole. Sulla treated the slave who helped him no better – he freed him to reward his services and then had him executed because he betrayed a Roman master. Sulla, now proconsul, went away to his war and Marius came back with an army. A ferocious melee occured – class warfare on a brutal, bloody scale. Sulla’s followers were slaughtered, among many others, and all of his assets seized. Marius was elected consul again, but died. Sulla made peace with Mithridates, and came back with fabulous riches, sending his adversaries fleeing, including a young Julius Caesar. He fought another war against the democrats and a terrible slaughter ensued. Sulla was made dictator and a reign of terror ensued against his enemies that makes the French Revolution look like a morality play. But, he ruled only two years as dictator, and after revolutionizing the laws so as to guarantee an aristocracy or monarchy (he hoped) forever, he retired. His enemies were all dead, and he could live without any fear. He had had a remarkable life in which he always seemed to win – his soldiers loved him, he had five wives and many mistresses, he was exceedingly well educated, filled his life with luxuries and riches, wrote his memoirs. He did not get to enjoy his retirement, but died the next year from a horrid ulcer too awful to describe in these genteel pages, and died hemorrhaging. I've read a few different versions of the epitaph he wrote for himself, and will not track down the truest version, but, according to Will Durant, who has my trust, he wrote “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” Few dictators have ruled who can say that honestly.
1. Charles XII of Sweden. I’ve written of this hero before in some depth here (June 28, 2008) and will be much briefer here. He was the ultimate swashbuckler – a King who led in battle, was almost astonishingly brave, took on more than he could chew, and eventually choked on it. But, what a fabulous ride. Riding out of his own country, he camped with his men, was their hero and fought beside them. He lived during the same era as Peter the Great. Both Voltaire and Franklin adjudged Charles the greater. Yet, if he was superior in valor and martial skills, Peter’s artillery and the size of Russia were more important and he won the Battle of Poltava, making his own legend forever. Although XII, who fled to the Ottomans, successfully gathered their aid, they temporarily defeated his nemesis, Peter barely escaped with his life and was able to bribe the Ottomans, saving his own neck. This infuriated XII, but there was nothing he could do about it. He finally made his way across Europe in a secret ride home with a few men and returned at last almost a beaten man to his own Sweden. Although the Great Northern War was forced upon him, he relied too much on his own personal greatness, usually a mistake in the end. Sweden was finally attacked within its own borders and forced to surrender much of its territory. He fought in over a hundred battles and almost always won. Had his initial charge at Poltava been successful, as it at first seemed it would, or the Ottomans not let Peter slip through their fingers later on, perhaps we never would have heard of Peter the Great and more would know of this great warrior-king. I will not attempt to review in this paragraph all the acts of personal heroism that make Charles so riveting, but refer you to my earlier post. At the close of that article I wrote – “As to who was greater, XII or Peter, I will offer only this suggestion. XII was more magnificent, but Peter was greater, as his achievements were many and lasting". Perhaps true, but when concentrating on my fascination with them, I can’t help elevating XII over Peter for this one time, at least, and give him the victory he probably deserved.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .